DEP worker sues state for retaliation

By Stephen Betts | Oct 14, 2011

Bangor — A Maine Department of Environmental Protection worker claims she was removed from her job — overseeing the program to remove unsafe chemicals from children's products — after she testified against a bill that would have repealed the law.

A lawsuit on behalf of Andrea Lani was filed Oct. 12 in U.S. District Court in Bangor against the state, DEP, Commissioner Patricia Aho, and the director of the bureau of remediation and waste management Ronald Dyer.

Lani is a resident of Whitefield.

"This is a free speech case brought by a hard-working and highly-rated DEP employee who was retaliated against by Commissioner Aho and Director Dyer beginning on March 31," the lawsuit states. "The retaliation not only violated the clearly established constitutional and state law rights of Ms. Lani, but it also threatens the freedom of all Maine people by undermining the ability of the legislative branch to oversee and check the power of the executive branch."

The lawsuit notes that Lani has worked for the DEP since 1999 and in 2009 was chosen to implement the Safer Chemicals in Children's Products program. She noted she received a highly favorable written performance evaluation including a statement that she was becoming a national leader in the area of state assessment and regulation of toxic chemicals in children's products.

On March 29, Lani testified before a legislative committee on a bill that she said would have "effectively repealed the regulation of toxic chemicals in many products that children frequently come into contact with, including bisphenol A (BPA) which is used in baby bottles."

The DEP worker noted she testified as a private citizen, used vacation time to testify, and prepared her written and oral testimony on her own time and did not use any state equipment.

Despite this, she states that two days later she was ordered to report to a different supervisor, Dyer, and that Commissioner Aho and Dyer launched an investigation into her conduct before the legislative committee. The investigation confirmed that she had done the work on her own time and that she did nothing wrong.

On June 14, she was informed by a letter that she was being transferred to a less desirable clerical position within the commissioner's office to coordinate freedom of access requests, and records retention. She said her position was filled by a clerk who was far less qualified for the position.

Lani argues that state employees have clear protection under Maine law to testify before legislative committees on their own time.

She seeks an injunction from the court and reinstatement to her position. She also seeks compensatory and punitive damages from the defendants and coverage of her legal fees.

A message was left with Aho's office on Friday morning, Oct. 14, seeking comment on the lawsuit. A response has yet to be received.

One of the state's leading environmental protection organizations — the Maine Conservation Voters noted its annual review of legislative actions that there was an effort to attack environmental regulations.

"A struggling economy coupled with new political leadership in Augusta ushered in a fierce wave of aggressive attacks against the laws that protect our natural areas, clean air and water, wildlife and children's health. The breadth and audacity of this assault were unprecedented," stated the organization's Executive Director Maureen Drouin and Board President Leslie Harroun in the 25th annual report.

The bill that Lani testified on earlier this year was killed in the Legislature.

She is represented by attorneys David Webbert and Elizabeth Burnett of Augusta.

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