The Maine Attorney General’s Office is no longer defending the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in a federal whistleblower lawsuit brought by a former Maine Center for Disease Control division director.
DHHS, which oversees the CDC, has two new lawyers.
And as the lawsuit continues, computer hard drives have been taken from several key employees in an effort to secure potential evidence.
The suit, filed last October by Sharon Leahy-Lind, former director of the Division of Local Public Health, alleges that CDC Director Sheila Pinette and others in DHHS and the CDC violated the Whistleblower Protection Act by retaliating against her when she refused to destroy documents connected to the funding of the Healthy Maine Partnerships program.
She also alleges defamation and violations of state and federal medical leave acts, the Maine Human Rights Acts, the federal Civil Rights Act, the Freedom of Access Act and the First Amendment.
One of the duties of the AG’s Office is to represent the state, including defending its agencies in court.
But on Jan. 17, the AG’s Office filed a motion to withdraw as defense counsel, citing “a recent and unexpected development” that made the office unable to represent the department or Pinette. According to court records, the AG’s Office declined to provide more details unless it could provide them in private.
A U.S. District Court judge ruled that wouldn’t be necessary because the defendants would get new lawyers and any reasons for withdrawal would then be moot. He agreed to let the AG’s Office withdraw.
Pinette immediately hired Graydon Stevens, a Portland lawyer who focuses on labor and employment law.
This week, DHHS hired Jonathan Shapiro and Eric Uhl, lawyers with Fisher and Phillips, a national law firm with a Portland office. Both men specialize in employment law.
Within the past week, computer hard drives from several employees, including Pinette, CDC Deputy Director Christine Zukas and Office of Health Equity Director Lisa Sockabasin, were taken by the state’s Office of Information Technology in an effort to secure potential evidence for the lawsuit.
Kevin Wells, general counsel for DHHS, called their removal “standard operating procedure. Counsel issues a litigation hold and then we go and take steps to preserve any potential evidence. It’s standard practice in any major litigation.”
Although the state’s network servers automatically save information, Wells said, some data might still be saved only on a computer’s hard drive.