MACHIAS, Maine — Seventeen ex-employees of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office have sued Sheriff Donnie Smith over the collection and release of their personnel information as part of Smith’s unsuccessful effort to contest the ballot eligibility of two political opponents earlier this year.
The plaintiffs also have sued the sheriff’s department and Smith’s attorney for the ballot challenge case, Donald Brown of Brewer.
The lawsuit was filed two weeks before Smith’s name will appear on the ballot in Washington County, where he is seeking re-election as an independent. Smith’s attorney Peter Marchesi of Waterville said Thursday that the lawsuit is politically motivated.
The complaint, filed Monday in Washington County Superior Court, alleged that Smith released employees’ Social Security numbers and other personal information — collected from their county employment records — and has left them subject to possible identity theft.
“Our clients are distraught over Smith’s release of their Social Security numbers to the public,” said Bangor attorney Steven T. Blackwell, who represents the plaintiffs, in a news release announcing the lawsuit.
“In this age of electronic communication and social networks, there has been an explosion of identity theft cases literally throughout the world in recent years,” Blackwell said. “Our clients’ information is out there in cyberspace making them vulnerable, possibly for the rest of their lives, to a hoard of identity thieves. They now face the possibility of financial ruin.”
The records compiled by Smith for the ballot challenge case — which included the personnel information — later were provided by the secretary of state’s office to the Bangor Daily News, which linked to them online for a short time in April.
“In the course of our reporting on the ballot challenge hearing, the public documents provided by the secretary of state’s office that contained the identifying information were linked as a downloadable file on bangordailynews.com,” said Anthony Ronzio, director of news and audience for the BDN. “When we realized they contained identifying information, we deleted the documents from the website and our editorial system.”
The lawsuit includes claims that Smith violated Maine’s Freedom of Access law by obtaining confidential employment records without the permission of the employees or the Washington County commissioners.
“Smith unsuccessfully used this information in his attempt to remove two Republican candidates from the primary ballot for Washington County sheriff in this year’s election,” the news release issued by Blackwell said. “Smith provided the records, through his attorney, Donald Brown, to the Maine secretary of state, who in turn provided [plaintiffs’] Social Security numbers to the Bangor Daily News.”
The intent of Smith’s ballot challenge had been to show that his opponents lacked the five years of supervisory experience required by law to qualify as candidates for sheriff.
The lawsuit includes claims of invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages that would allow them to “monitor and protect their private identifying information from theft or misuse now and in the future.”
The complaint also asks for punitive damages and reasonable attorney fees.
Blackwell said Thursday that two of his clients had reported one incident each of attempted credit and debit card fraud since early April. The attorney said their banks had restored the lost funds.
Blackwell also said that the breach may have been a result of the publication of information in April.
Among the plaintiffs are former Washington County Sheriff Joseph Tibbetts of Columbia, and a former deputy and political opponent of Smith’s, Rodney Merritt of Perry, both of whom are Republicans.
Other plaintiffs are: Gale M. Tibbetts of Columbia, John W. Fuller III of Lubec, Frank H. Gardner of Edmunds Township, Michael Crabtree of Eastport, John Francis of Eastport, Jonathan Rolfe of Marshfield, Robert S. Dore of Perry, Richard Moore of Marshfield, Phillip E. Farren II of Lubec, Elson Guerra of Machias, Joseph M. Barnes of Indian Township, Randy P. Perry of Harrington, Steven Ramsey of Wesley, Peter Walsh of Millinocket and John Hennessy of North Carolina.
Perry and Ramsey worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in April but since have retired, Blackwell said Thursday.
Smith declined comment on Thursday, referring questions about the lawsuit to his attorney.
Marchesi said Thursday his client did nothing wrong by providing the information to the secretary of state’s office. It was not his client, he said, who publicized any of the confidential personnel files.
The timing of the filing, he added, and the fact that neither the secretary of state’s office nor the Bangor Daily News were named as defendants, suggest the plaintiffs are trying to affect the outcome of the sheriff’s race.
“This lawsuit is less about protecting people’s privacy and is more about infecting the political process and the upcoming election,” Marchesi said. “If the information had not been released by the secretary of state, and if the Bangor Daily News had not posted it, this wouldn’t be happening.”
Brown, who represented Smith in his ballot challenge in April, on Thursday said: “This is a frivolous lawsuit filed to gain a political advantage in the race for sheriff.”
Smith, an independent, is being challenged by Barry Curtis, a Republican from Cherryfield and a former Maine State Police trooper.