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Former Md. attorney general to lead probe into police surveillance of protest groups

July 31, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) -- A group headed by a former Maryland attorney general will examine state trooper surveillance of anti-war and death-penalty opposition groups to try to prevent such actions in the future, the governor said Thursday.

Gov. Martin O'Malley called for the review, naming former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs to lead it. It will take 30 to 60 days and will examine state police practices over 14 months in 2005 and 2006, before O'Malley was governor.

Sachs, who served as attorney general in the late 1970s and the 1980s, said the purpose of the review is "to discover the unvarnished truth about what happened and what didn't happen." He also said his goal was to help the governor take steps to ensure Maryland residents can exercise their constitutional rights "unhobbled by officials."

O'Malley said he hoped it "will shed some greater light and also provide some better guidance," on preventing such surveillance from happening again.

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"I would like to be able to assure the public that this has been thoroughly investigated and reviewed and what's more, having learned from the facts of this experience, we are adopting the proper guidelines and protocols in order to safeguard this sort of waste of resources ever happening again," O'Malley said at a news conference.

Members of Congress and state lawmakers have called for an investigation of the surveillance, which was revealed in documents released by state police after they were sued by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The documents show undercover officers infiltrated meetings of peace and anti-capital punishment groups for more than a year, spending nearly 300 hours on surveillance.

Police also included the name of at least one prominent peace activist in a federal database for tracking terrorists and drug dealers.

O'Malley emphasized that Sachs is leading a review, and is not a special counsel or "a grand jury."

"... Sachs will have the ability to talk to everybody in the chain of command and ask them why they did what they did and who they shared it with," O'Malley said.

O'Malley also said no information from surveillance was shared with him when he was mayor of Baltimore, even though Baltimore police were regularly made aware of public demonstrations.

"But the insinuation that somehow the city police were involved in this in an undercover capacity, there's no evidence of that," O'Malley said.

Current Attorney General Doug Gansler emphasized that there were no allegations "at this point of any illegal activity taking place."

"We will learn what happened, and at the end of the day we'll know exactly what happened and if any laws were broken," Gansler said at a news conference with O'Malley, Sachs and Col. Terrence Sheridan, state police superintendent.

Sheridan pledged to cooperate.

"Whatever general Sachs needs, he will get from us, because we want to make sure that this comes out and that we protect those rights that we in law enforcement are ensuring day in and day out," Sheridan said.

Deputy Attorney General J.B. Howard and Assistant Attorney General Josh Auerbach will assist Sachs.

Sheridan said a preliminary review last week found the officers involved didn't break any laws, although their judgment could be questioned.

Sheridan said the head of the state police's homeland security division decided to begin watching the groups following a request from a colleague in another division that was preparing for Vernon Evans' execution. The surveillance ended in May 2006, and Evans' execution was postponed about six months later, according to a timeline handed out by state police.

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