The state’s high court Tuesday vacated a lower court ruling that had dismissed most welfare fraud charges against a Lewiston man.

As a result, Abdi Hassan, 47, of 105 Shawmut St. must again answer 13 counts of related charges, including theft and forgery.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court wrote in a unanimous opinion that prosecutors had not committed a discovery violation, as alleged last summer by Judge Susan Oram in Androscoggin County Superior Court, and that Oram had made a mistake in the law.

Assistant Attorneys General Darcy Mitchell and Greg Bernstein had sought to have Oram reconsider her ruling that resulted in the dismissal of the 13 charges of theft, forgery and unsworn falsification against Hassan. Oram had rejected that effort.

Mitchell and Bernstein took their case to the state’s high court, which heard oral arguments in December.

Oram’s dismissal stemmed from Mitchell’s discovery during a pretrial interview with a former Maine Department of Health and Human Services worker who disclosed that applications for welfare benefits in Hassan’s case may have been improperly filled out by several caseworkers at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. That disclosure came just days before Hassan’s trial, whose starting date had already been continued several times.

In an email from Mitchell to Hassan’s lawyer, James Howaniec, she wrote that a former DHHS worker “indicated that it was possible that Ms. (Mary) Coffin completed the form in its entirety, i.e. also completed the portion of the form bearing Abdi (Hassan) Aideed’s name.” When the former DHHS worker, Dawna Bailey, was asked “if she could ever recall doing that herself, i.e., signing a form for a client, she indicated that she would like to think that if she had ever done it, that she would put her initials next to the name and that she would have gotten the individual’s permission before doing so.”

Two DHHS caseworkers referenced by Mitchell in her email no longer are employed by that agency, according to an agency spokeswoman.

After learning of the possible DHHS document irregularities, Howaniec had filed a motion to continue Hassan’s case at least a month or to dismiss the charges, citing the state’s violation of discovery rules.

In her ruling dated May 14, Oram wrote that the case had “been pending for far too long” and that the only remedy to the new revelations other than a continuance was dismissal of the charges related to DHHS documents. Her action, which means the state can’t recharge Hassan on those 13 DHHS-related charges, was taken “as a sanction for the state’s violation of its discovery obligations,” she wrote.

In her motion for reconsideration, Mitchell argued that only two of 72 documents in the case “purportedly containing defendant Hassan’s signature may have been completed by a DHHS employee.” Three of the documents “have been identified as having potential issues with their veracity,” she wrote.

“The court indicated that the possibility that this document could have been improperly prepared … ‘calls into question the integrity or reliability of the documentation and witnesses as to all the counts in the (Androscoggin County grand jury) indictment related to the (Maine) Depar

tment of Health and Human Services,” Mitchell wrote, quoting Oram’s order dismissing the 13 charges.

Mitchell further quoted from Judge Oram’s order that she “does not know how many of these documents purport to contain defendant’s signature, how many appear to have been prepared, signed or reviewed by DHHS employees and how many of the remaining documents are devoid of any suspect elements.”

Mitchell said she had planned to call at trial 22 current and former DHHS workers, including Bailey. Included in her motion were recent interviews with DHHS workers who handled Hassan’s paperwork.

“The workers generally indicated that they would not sign a document for a client and are not aware of that being done,” Mitchell wrote. “One worker indicated that if she did sign a form for a client, it would read ‘her name for client’s name.’”

Mitchell took issue with Oram’s ruling, writing in her motion that, “this court incorrectly grafts onto the prosecution’s (and state’s) responsibilities a duty to continually conduct an investigation.”

Howaniec responded Tuesday to the high court ruling in a written statement: “I am not sure the Law Court fully understood the record and everything that occurred during the three years of pretrial litigation that led to Judge Oram’s decision. In any event, we will now proceed with a trial.”

He wrote: “There are over 5,000 pages of documents and over 80 witnesses designated by the parties. We look forward to investigating the full extent of the apparent forgeries that have been occurring at DHHS. The defense will also attempt to investigate why there are virtually no African-Americans, Somalis, or Muslims in Androscoggin County jury pools.”

Howaniec said he expected the trial to “last upwards of two months and will cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate.”

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, who argued the state’s case in front of the Supreme Court in December, said Tuesday, “We’re happy that we’re going to have our opportunity to present our case at trial.”

Writing for the high court, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley concluded, “The state did not have ‘possession or control’ of the information from the former employee until the second pretrial interview.”

Soon as that information was conveyed to the attorneys for the state, they conveyed it to Hassan’s defense, Saufley wrote, despite its last-minute timing.

“No reading of Rule 16 would support a determination that, because this potential witness was a former (DHHS) employee, the state had actual or constructive knowledge of the information she shared, and neither the rule nor our cases impose a duty on the state to disclose information outside its ‘possession or control,’” Saufley wrote.

For that reason, Saufley wrote: “The (lower) court therefore erred as a matter of law by concluding that the state committed a discovery violation pursuant to Rule 16. The court also erred when it concluded that the state’s ‘duty of reasonable diligence’ required it to uncover the information from the former department employee before the second pretrial interview.”

Before the charges against Hassan were dismissed by Judge Oram, the mother of his five children, Amina Ege, 45, of Lewiston pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges in connection with Hassan’s case.

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