A lawyer for government workers suspected of defrauding the state to gain post-storm food benefits is accusing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration of muzzling its employees “to keep us from uncovering the truth” by an "unconstitutional gag order.''
The lawyer, Richard A. Rochlin, filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of a client, state employee Lisa Prout, to overturn the administration’s action. He cited a memo that was sent by an attorney for the state Department of Social Services to DSS employees that ordered them not to speak to Rochlin about his investigation into suspected fraud in the emergency food stamp benefits program.
Prout, a 45-year-old single mother who works at Connecticut Valley Hospital for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, applied for the benefits at the DSS office in Middletown following Tropical Storm Irene and received $524. She is now being investigated by the state "for allegedly understating income and allegedly committing fraud to obtain such benefit,'' according to the lawsuit. State records show that, with overtime, Prout was paid about $82,000 in the 2011 fiscal year.
Rochlin is seeking a ruling by a state Superior Court judge in Hartford that would rescind the memo, end the gag order and allow Rochlin to speak freely to state employees so that he could prepare a defense in Prout's case.
"It's an impermissible gag order,'' Rochlin said in an interview. "Legally, the law is crystal clear. This is Government Lawyer 101.''
He added, "It's unconstitutional what they're doing. It's settled precedent. I understand I can't speak to the upper-level management, but I can speak to the lower-level employees. It's well-settled law. You can't just lawyer up and say you can't speak to anybody.''
Rochlin has clashed repeatedly with Malloy's office in recent weeks over the issue. A Malloy spokesman referred all questions Thursday to the attorney general's office, which is representing the Department of Social Services in the case. The attorney general's chief spokeswoman, Attorney Susan Kinsman, said, "The Office of the Attorney General has received a copy of the complaint. We are reviewing it and will have no further comment at this time.”
Rochlin said the gag order is "an intimidation tactic'' that contradicts the often-repeated statements by the Malloy administration about promoting "transparency'' in state government.
"He wants us to be open,'' Rochlin said. "He wants due process. His workers are scared to speak.''
Rochlin previously held a news conference with Prout soon after Christmas when the state held a hearing that could lead to her firing.
"I would never risk everything that I have - my career, my dignity, and my name - for $524,'' Prout said at the time.
The lawsuit was filed against the state Department of Social Services, its commissioner, Roderick L. Bremby, and Brenda M. Parrella, the attorney who sent the memo to DSS employees.
The memo by Parrella, which is mentioned in the lawsuit and was released Thursday by Rochlin, said, "It is a violation of the attorneys' Rules of Professional Conduct for an attorney to contact you directly when you are represented by counsel. In your official capacities, you are all represented by in-house counsel, in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General.''
In an earlier statement, Rochlin said that Parrella "incorrectly stated that any contact initiated by me violates the Rules of Professional Conduct. Such actions are unconstitutional and violate decades of settled legal precedent, including U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Their action is in direct contravention of Governor Malloy's promise to have transparency as one of his most important agenda items,” Rochlin said in the statement.
“The governor's administration, faced with continued criticism about the way DSS handled the D-SNAP program, has resorted to issuing unconstitutional scare tactics to keep us from uncovering the truth. We will not be intimidated and will ask a court to put an end to this star chamber of secrecy.”Copyright © 2015, CT Now