MACHIAS, Maine — The turmoil at Down East Community Hospital in Machias took another strange turn recently when hospital files that were believed stolen washed up on a nearby riverbank.

A resident stumbled across the bags of documents in the Pennamaquan River in Pembroke earlier this month and called police. The bags were returned to the hospital, where staff spent several days sifting through the drenched documents, according to a spokesperson for the hospital.

Karen Theriault, DECH’s health information director and compliance officer, conducted an internal investigation that included interviews with several hospital staff members and determined that whoever removed the files was not authorized to do so.

“We have referred this matter to law enforcement officials for further investigation as a possible criminal act,” Wayne Dodwell, the hospital’s president and CEO, said in a statement released last week. “We take this matter very seriously and to facilitate the investigation, we are offering a reward of $1,000 for information that leads to the identification and conviction of the person(s) responsible for this act.”

As of this weekend, police had no suspects.

The stolen documents might not be as big a concern if not for continuing friction among some physicians and administrators at the Machias health care facility.

A community group, the Committee to Save Our Hospital, has formed in response to what it feels has been unfair treatment of doctors and staff at DECH. Its members have picketed outside the hospital on multiple occasions and held a forum last month hosted by a national expert on the phenomenon of “sham peer review.”

Some physicians who have been fired or dismissed believe they were the targets of sham or bad-faith peer review. While Dodwell and other hospital leaders have stood by their practices, tension still exists.

One physician who was fired, Dr. James Whalen, filed a lawsuit against the hospital, claiming his hospital privileges were revoked unjustly. At a hearing in August, a judge approved a temporary restraining order that overturned the hospital’s decision. A final decision has not been issued, but Whalen called the initial ruling “landmark.”

Another doctor, Lowell Gerber, was fired about 10 months after he was brought in to lead DECH’s cardiology department. Gerber believes he was targeted for dismissal because he challenged the administration with new ideas. Like Whalen, he’s exploring legal options.

Several other physicians have resigned amid the internal turmoil. One of them, Dr. Myo Naing, started a page on the social networking Web site Facebook that promotes discussion about issues at DECH.

Hospital officials have not revealed what types of documents allegedly were stolen or why they might have been targeted. They also haven’t said whether the documents are related to any of the disgruntled employees.

Meanwhile, the Committee to Save Our Hospital recently began circulating petitions throughout Washington County that it plans to deliver to Brenda Harvey, Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services commissioner. The committee believes DECH has continually violated standards of care set forth by state and federal regulations and is asking that a third party take over hospital operations.

Since 2005, 32 complaints involving Down East Community Hospital have been filed with the Licensing and Regulatory Services division of DHHS. Of those, 12 cases have been closed and four of those have resulted in deficiencies cited, according to information obtained from DHHS through a Freedom of Information request. Fifteen complaints involving DECH are still pending review.

Anyone with information about the stolen documents may contact the Machias Police Department at 255-8558, the Washington County Sheriff’s Department at 255-4422, the Maine State Police at 255-4000, or the hospital at 255-0272.