January 22

Attorney General’s Office asks to withdraw from Maine whistleblower case

Due to an ‘unexpected development,’ the state said it can no longer defend in a lawsuit filed by a former employee who said she was ordered to destroy public documents.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Attorney General’s Office has requested to withdraw as counsel in a federal lawsuit filed by a former state employee who claims she was ordered by her superiors to destroy documents.

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Former Maine Center for Disease Control employee Sharon Leahy-Lind is suing the CDC. The Maine Attorney General’s Office won’t say why it won’t defend the CDC.

Eric Russell/Staff Writer

Sharon Leahy-Lind, the former director of local public health for the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in October under the Whistleblower Protection Act. Named as defendants are the CDC and its director, Sheila Pinette. The complaint alleges that Leahy-Lind was harassed after she refused to destroy documents related to controversial grant-funding decisions under the Healthy Maine Partnership Program.

Assistant Attorneys General Susan Herman and Ronald Lupton had been representing the state and Pinette in the case.

The request for withdrawal, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland on Jan. 17 and signed by Attorney General Janet T. Mills, does not outline any specific reasons.

“Due to a recent and unexpected development, the Office of the Attorney General is unable to continue to represent either the CDC or Pinette in this litigation,” the motion states.

Paul Stern, chief of the Litigation Division of the Attorney General’s Office, declined to provide any more information on Tuesday other than to say it was no longer appropriate for anyone from his office to defend the case. Asked whether he could characterize the “unexpected development” as a conflict of interest, Stern said he “could not characterize it at all.”

Stern said it is uncommon but not unprecedented for the attorneys from his office to ask to be removed from a case. He said private counsel will be retained for both Pinette and for the CDC. As of Monday, Pinette had retained Graydon Stevens. The agency did not have new counsel.

As for how the state will pay for outside counsel, Stern said the Attorney General’s Office has an insurance fund set up specifically for such instances.

Cynthia Dill, Leahy-Lind’s attorney, said she was surprised by the latest development in the case. She said the unusual thing for her is that the request for withdrawal came before a judge even acted on the state’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

Dill said she asked her counterparts why they were seeking to withdraw and did not get an answer. She said a judge likely would grant the motion and may or may not require the Attorney General’s Office to provide a better explanation.

“I’m confident the court will handle it appropriately,” Dill said.

Earlier this month, Leahy-Lind testified before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee that she was ordered to destroy public records because a newspaper planned to request them under the Freedom of Access Act. During that same meeting, lawmakers reviewed a report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability – the state’s watchdog agency – which was highly critical of how the CDC handled the incident.

The Government Oversight Committee is expected to resume discussion of the case at its meeting Friday and could adopt recommendations from the watchdog group. These include that the CDC should gather better performance data rather than rely on subjective information; ensure the integrity of future processes for awarding grants under the Healthy Maine Partnership Program; and offer better guidance and clarification to employees about the agency’s policy for document retention.

The Attorney General’s Office also is investigating the document-shredding claim. Under the Freedom of Access Act, it is a Class D crime to willfully destroy or remove public documents possessed by a state entity.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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