An employee of the state Department of Environmental Protection is suing the agency, claiming she was unfairly demoted from her job as coordinator of a program to protect children from harmful chemicals.

Andrea Lani, an environmental specialist in the DEP, contends that she was demoted because she testified before a legislative committee as a private citizen against a bill that would have ended the program.

Lani filed the lawsuit Oct. 12 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, naming the state, the DEP, Commissioner Patricia Aho and the director of the department’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, Ronald Dyer. The complaint asserts that Lani’s free-speech rights were violated under federal law and that she was discriminated against as a state employee.

Maine law explicitly protects state employees from threats and discrimination for testifying before legislative committees on their own time as private citizens.

Aho referred questions about the lawsuit to the state Attorney General’s Office, which declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

“We are reviewing the complaint and will respond in due course of the litigation,” said Brenda Kielty, spokeswoman for Attorney General William Schneider.

Dyer did not respond to an email and a phone call.

According to the complaint, Lani, a Whitefield resident, was hired to coordinate the Safer Chemicals in Children’s Products program in 2009 after 10 years with an excellent work record in the DEP. The program was established by the passage of the Kid-Safe Products Act in 2008.

The law directed the DEP to prioritize the most dangerous chemicals in children’s products as candidates for a ban by the Legislature and the Board of Environmental Protection, an appointed panel that sets rules for the DEP.

On March 29, Lani testified, on her own time, before the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee at a hearing on a bill that effectively would have repealed the Kid-Safe Products Act, according to the complaint.

Two days later, she was told she was being reassigned to another supervisor and would report to Dyer. Aho and Dyer then ordered an investigation into whether Lani had improperly used state resources for her testimony. The investigation cleared Lani of any wrongdoing.

Aho is a former lobbyist with the American Chemistry Council who “vigorously lobbied against” the Kid-Safe Products Act before it was passed, according to Lani’s complaint.

The bill to repeal the act failed.

In June, Lani was demoted to a clerk’s position to coordinate Freedom of Access requests, records retention and litigation holds, according to the complaint. Her former position was filled by a less qualified worker who was hired this year as an entry-level clerk, the complaint says.

“Defendants Aho and Dyer have retaliated against Ms. Lani in reckless disregard of her federal constitutional rights,” the complaint says.

Samantha Depoy-Warren, the DEP’s spokeswoman, described Lani’s new position Tuesday as a “redeployment from a bureau to the more prestigious commissioner’s office.”

Lani’s pay as an environmental specialist III has stayed the same under her new assignment, at $48,500 a year, said Depoy-Warren.

Lani, a mother of three who publishes a blog and as a DEP employee wrote a series of nature columns once published in The Portland Press Herald, declined to comment on her complaint. She is seeking reinstatement to her former job and monetary damages to cover her legal fees, plus other damages.

Her lawyers, David Webbert and Elizabeth Burnett of Augusta, did not respond to phone calls or emails.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]