The Edward T. Gignoux United States Courthouse is seen in Portland in this May 16, 2018, file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A Maine fire marshal’s office investigator has sued his boss, alleging he was passed over for promotion three times after he supported a bill that used $1 million in surplus money from the office’s budget to allow its investigators to collect retirement benefits after 20, rather than 25, years of service.

Mark J. Roberts, 42, of Scarborough on Thursday sued the state and State Fire Marshal Joseph E. Thomas in U.S District Court in Maine. Roberts claims his right to free speech was violated, that he was discriminated against on the basis of sex and that the state violated Maine’s Whistleblower Protection Act.

Roberts is seeking unspecified and punitive damages.

The Maine attorney general’s office, which must defend Thomas and the state, declined Friday to comment on the lawsuit.

In late 2018, Roberts proposed to Thomas that the agency sponsor legislation that would allow fire investigators to retire after working for 20 years rather than 25 years. Thomas rejected the idea of the fire marshal’s office proposing the legislation but said Roberts could advocate for such legislation on his own time.

Mark Roberts, an investigator with the Maine fire marshal’s office, has sued his boss in federal court alleging he was illegally passed over for promotions. Roberts, shown with his accelerant-sniffing dog, Deacon, claims he was retaliated against after he supported a bill that impacted the agency’s budget. Credit: Courtesy of the Office of State Fire Marshal

On April 22, 2019, Roberts testified in favor of LD 1480, legislation to make that change, before the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee, according to the complaint. He supported the bill because it would mitigate the high risk of cancer for fire investigators by reducing the number of years they’re exposed to cancer-causing chemicals on the job.

A fiscal note accompanying the bill stated that about $1 million would be needed to fund the legislation and that the money could be moved from a $2 million surplus in the fire marshal office’s budget.

When Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill into law on June 27, 2019, it was clear to Roberts that Thomas “was very unhappy about the effect that LD 1480 had on his budget,” the complaint said.

Over the next 18 months, Roberts was denied a promotion three times. Once, a supervisory position in northern Maine was given to a woman even though Roberts was the unanimous recommendation of the selection committee. Roberts was told he did not get the job because he was unwilling to move to northern Maine, the complaint said. But the person who got the job did not move within six months as required and was able to transfer to a supervisory position in southern Maine.

Roberts claims she was promoted over him because she is a woman. In two subsequent instances, fire inspectors with less experience were promoted instead of Roberts in retaliation for his advocacy for LD 1480, the complaint said.

Roberts continues to work as a fire investigator and is one of two investigators in Maine who works with an accelerant-detection dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Deacon.

These dogs enable fire investigators to save time by being able to cover the fire scene more quickly than humans, and they save money by narrowing down how many samples need to be sent to the lab for processing by identifying possible accelerants, according to the fire marshal’s office.