Former employee files discrimination complaint against Maine tribal company

Posted May 14, 2014, at 12:54 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A former accountant for two Penobscot Nation companies has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging she was wrongfully fired in retaliation for whistleblower charges of widespread corruption and because of her race.

According to court documents unsealed this month about charges against the Indian Island-based Federal Program Integrators, former employee Elizabeth Rassi alleged the company used a special preference in government contract bids to win deals as a “pass-through” for companies across the country, including Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp. and Bangor-based companies CMC & Maintenance Inc. and Dawnlander Inc. The company is a subsidiary of the tribe’s holding company, Penobscot Indian Nation Enterprises, for which Rassi was also the senior accountant.

Rassi is pursuing wrongful termination claims against the company, but investigation into her charges of corruption will not move forward after the federal government this month declined to intervene in the lawsuit. The court gave Rassi permission to pursue the charges alone, but her attorney said that would be too expensive.

“We thought we’d raised some very serious issues,” said Brett Baber, Rassi’s attorney, in a phone interview Wednesday. “I know the government took those very seriously and took a lot of time and effort investigating the allegations.”

Evan Roth, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s civil division, said he could not comment on his office’s investigation or why the office did not intervene in the case.

“It’s not a matter of public record and I’m not allowed to say,” Roth said.

In the whistleblower complaint, unsealed by a May 6 order, Rassi alleged that Federal Program Integrators worked with subcontractors to obtain government contracts using the tribal company’s eligibility for the Small Business Administration’s Business Development Program. She claimed FPI served as the prime contractor on most of its federally-funded work, most of which was performed by subcontractors.

Rassi’s complaint stated the company’s revenues were boosted “ almost exclusively as a result of its federal business” to $84 million in 2011, up from $250,000 just two years earlier.

The federal program requires companies to prove social and economic disadvantage, for which tribal entities automatically qualify. It also requires companies receiving contracts through that program to do a certain percentage of the work themselves, rather than having the bulk of the work done by other entities.

Calls to tribal and FPI officials seeking comment Wednesday morning were not immediately returned.

Rassi’s complaint named 20 defendants, including 14 companies, she said wrongly benefitted from contracts awarded to FPI. She claimed, on behalf of the federal government, that the company violated the federal False Claims Act by not performing its required portion of the labor under those contracts.

In one case, Rassi alleged that FPI won a $1.2 million contract through the SBA program for work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and that all of the work was completed by employees of Cianbro. Rassi alleged similar arrangements for multiple separate deals worth up to $19 million, including projects at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, and the National Institutes of Health.

In some cases, she alleged subcontractors provided services to help FPI win government deals and that FPI paid “kickbacks” for contracts won. In the complaint, Rassi indicated she was instructed in some cases to make payments to subcontractors for help preparing contracts. She claimed those payments were not disclosed to the government.

Rassi claims in the complaint she notified supervisors at multiple times of potential violations of federal law, including a separate charge of inflating contract prices, while she was an employee there.

Baber said that while the false claims portions of Rassi’s complaint will not move forward, she will continue to pursue two counts of wrongful termination against FPI.

According to the complaint, Rassi filed a formal complaint of a hostile work environment to her employers April 2, 2012, alleging racial discrimination, and was fired April 23, 2012. Rassi began working at FPI and PINE in December 2010. She alleged she was the only non-Native American employee working at FPI’s headquarters on Indian Island and that she was told by a supervisor that she would not be promoted for that reason. In response to a complaint with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, which handles workplace discrimination issues, she received a right-to-sue letter in late 2013.

She claims the firing was also in response to her complaints and inquiries into the company’s contracting practices.

Roth, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, could not say whether his office is conducting further investigation into any of Rassi’s claims.

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