Natasha Irving is the district attorney for Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The district attorney who serves the midcoast is seeking an investigation into Lincoln County government after she claims the county administrator told her employees she wasn’t their boss, kept her out of the hiring process for staff members and improperly handled a personnel matter that resulted in an employee’s two-day suspension.

District Attorney Natasha Irving has asked Lincoln County commissioners to approve at least $10,000 for the human resources investigation, which a third-party lawyer would conduct. Irving and commissioners are meeting in a closed-door executive session on Monday to discuss the appropriation.

Irving serves as the top prosecutor for Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties. She said the latest issues with Lincoln County come after county officials, including the administrator, have repeatedly kept her out of the loop on matters that deal with her office, including the hiring of employees.

At the time the personnel and hostile work environment issues came to a head earlier this year, Irving was on a two-month maternity leave. Irving could not discuss the specifics of the personnel issue she claims the county administrator improperly handled. But she said that situation and subsequent complaints from her staff in the district attorney’s Lincoln County office that went uninvestigated by county officials need to be looked into.

“All of the workers in Lincoln County have the right to have a workplace free from discimrination, harassment, bullying and abuse,” Irving said. “I have every reason to believe that this isn’t just my department, but that this is a systemic issue in Lincoln County and there needs to be an investigation, a report and recommendations, and they need to be followed as to how to make sure we’re protecting employees in Lincoln County.”

Lincoln County Administrator Carrie Kipfer declined to comment on the allegations against her and other county officials, stating that it would be “inappropriate” since they deal with “active personnel issues that the county commissioners are addressing.”

Irving’s allegations come four years after Lincoln County settled a sexual harassment and hostile work environment lawsuit filed by a former district attorney’s office employee.

Under Maine statute, counties must provide a district attorney — the lead prosecutor of local criminal cases — with the space and funding to operate an office. Employees include assistant district attorneys, paralegals, administrative staff and victim witness advocates. However, who has management over the office has been a point of contention in Lincoln County since Irving was elected district attorney in November 2018, she said.

“[My staff] had been told [by the county administrator] that I wasn’t their boss,” Irving said.

The confusion this created only intensified over the last year as the pandemic forced some people to work remotely. It became a clear problem when Irving went on maternity leave beginning Jan. 29 and her staff brought complaints about a specific employee to the county administrator, she said. During this time, the staff also brought forward complaints related to hostile work environment issues.

The employee in question was suspended for two days, but county officials did not conduct an appropriate investigation into the matter, Irving said. Additionally, she said, the county did not look into the other complaints employees raised related to hostile work environment concerns.

“Anybody that understands [human resources], anybody who would be in a position of power here would see this as a red flag to stop everything and take care of this,” Irving said.

It was only when Irving returned from maternity leave on March 29 that she learned of what transpired. Despite numerous requests, Irving said, county officials have still not provided her with the personnel file of the employee who was suspended.

Her staff told her that when they followed up on their complaints, the county administrator “retaliated” against them by snapping at them and telling them it was inappropriate to ask, Irving said.

“They had been told I wasn’t their boss. So they didn’t know that if they came to me, I could do anything about it. Then they were concerned if they did come to me about any of it, that they would be in trouble and that I couldn’t protect them,” Irving said.

Over the last year, Irving said she has also had problems with county officials leaving her out of the hiring process for victim-witness advocates.

In April 2020, Irving said she learned the county had hired an advocate only through a staff-wide “welcome aboard” email. The county administrator told her this was an oversight and would not happen again, Irving said.

However, in December 2020, a prosecutor in the Lincoln County office overheard a conversation among county staff regarding the hiring of a second victim-witness advocate. The prosecutor then told Irving, who did not know the county was actively interviewing candidates.

She was able to participate in some of the interviews. However, she said, getting access to the process “was like pulling teeth.”

“I am happy to have other minds united around [the hiring process], but clearly, it’s my department. I should be the one directing the process,” Irving said.

Additionally, while she was on leave, Irving said, county officials told the victim-witness advocates that they couldn’t attend training meetings with other advocates in the four-county prosecutorial district Irving oversees. When Irving tried to reschedule these meetings when she returned, she said she faced resistance from the county administrator.

Irving is the first female to serve as district attorney in the region and ran on a progressive platform.

“What is really sad is the lengths that the county has gone to derail my office. I’m not understanding what the reason is other than a personal dislike of me,” Irving said. “It’s hard for me to get my head around.”