Below we offer a tale of deceit. A tale that is confusing but true.
In June 2012, under pressure to close a $83 million Department of Health and Human Services shortfall, the state's Center for Disease Control and Prevention — under the supervision of DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew — defunded 27 Healthy Maine Partnerships and their associated healthy community coalitions.
Then, over a span of six days, CDC and DHHS realigned these HMPs and contrived a plan to redistribute $4.7 million in grants to the partnerships, a reduction of $2.7 million from FY12.
In the process, supervisors ordered employees to destroy documents that didn’t support the political wishes of CDC and DHHS. And, all working papers documenting the process were destroyed.
When the realignment plan was announced and the public — including the Sun Journal, Sen. Margaret Craven and Rep. Margaret Rotundo —aggressively questioned the process, the CDC “created” documents to support its funding decisions and made those documents public without telling anyone they were fakes.
The lack of public information was so suspicious that the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee asked the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability to investigate. The Sun Journal also filed a formal complaint with the state’s public records ombudsman.
On Thursday, after 8 months of investigation, OPEGA released its report, and it is damning.
Investigators found the methodology developed to rank the HMPs was flawed, the process was not well documented, supervisors ordered documents to be destroyed, there was obvious signs of intentional manipulation of results and the Wabanaki District — one of nine lead HMPs — was not evaluated under the same protocol as the rest and then gained nearly double the level of funding from FY12, or a total of $597,941. The next largest grants of $322,941 went to Healthy Aroostook and to Healthy Acadia in Washington County, but most coalitions received $160,000 or less.
And, when asked about what happened and why, state employees and public officials gave investigators conflicting accounts, which is an overly polite way of saying someone wasn’t being truthful.
And, during the entire process, according to an email sent to the Sun Journal in 2012 from a DHHS spokesman, Mayhew “approved this approach and the award decisions. She was the decider.”
So, to borrow a phrase, the buck stops with Mayhew on this little tale of deception.
When the HMP realignment was announced, there was general surprise that Healthy Androscoggin — the first HMP to implement smoke-free public housing in Maine, among other significant innovations in public health —was set to lose 64 percent of its funding, dropping from $313,000 in FY12 to $120,000 in FY13. That drop could limit the coalition's ability to offer public health programs and maintain educational outreach in local schools and our businesses.
We asked the CDC to answer a couple of simple questions about how the funding decisions were made, but no one was willing to respond.
So, the Sun Journal made a formal public records request for access to the documents Mayhew used to reach her decisions, including the underlying RFPs, the Likert scores used to rank the HMPs, the names and roles of the people who scored each HMP and any written communication between Mayhew and CDC Director Sheila Pinette or their respective staff members as they calculated the new funding formula. All of the paperwork had been created and communicated between DHHS and CDC during a span of six days in early June.
CDC Deputy Director Christine Zukas told the Sun Journal the CDC would provide the requested documents, and that it would take 51 hours at a cost estimate of $500 to complete the work.
We appreciate some time is involved in retrieving and compiling public records requests, and that there is a cost to get that work done, but to suggest that it would take nearly 7 days to compile documents that took just over a week to create is preposterous, and we said so.
Ultimately, we received a portion of the requested records.
The chronology events is telling:
The Legislature approved DHHS budget cuts May 16, 2012. On May 29 — a Tuesday — CDC decided to realign the HMPs and met with Friends for a Fund for Healthy Maine to solicit input.
By June 6 — the following Wednesday — CDC employees presented Pinette with the results of the realignment process. So, in the span of six workdays, the CDC crafted the funding methodology, surveyed 27 HMPs, revised the methodology some more, and set new funding levels, all the while never telling the HMPs what was going on.
On June 13, Pinette and other CDC employees met with Mayhew to present their findings, and the next day Pinette announced the new HMP structure at a state coalition meeting. On June 18 Pinette contacted the new lead HMPs to confirm they would serve, and the HMPs were then all informed of the changes.
On June 21, the Sun Journal made its request for supporting documents while the paperwork was probably still on someone’s desk, but the CDC actively resisted providing them.
Now we know why.
According to the OPEGA investigation, once the Sun Journal asked for records the agency had to invent some to justify the HMP funding awards and the public had to be stalled.
The whole process was a sham, with obvious intention to selectively fund the HMPs for political purposes.
Even the notion that the survey results were used to calculate funding is impossible to believe because, for instance, Healthy Acadia and Healthy Aroostook scored 15 and 19, respectively, and yet they were each funded at exactly $322,941.
Of the 27 agencies scored, the highest score was 26 points for Healthy Portland, which did not receive the highest amount of funding. In fact, five other agencies received more funding than Portland.
Healthy Androscoggin, Franklin's Healthy Community Coalition and Healthy Oxford Hills scored 17, 11 and 15, respectively, and each were funded at precisely $140,000.
OPEGA’s investigation calls the credibility of the entire process into question. Was the process transparent?
Sure. Transparently political.
Destruction of a public record is a Class D misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, and violation of a public records request carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine.
So, we urge the Attorney General’s Office to take a hard look at what happened here and prosecute any violations of law.
But, really, the larger harm here is that — other than Bangor and Portland — cities and towns in Maine do not have local health departments and have to rely on HMPs to protect and promote public health. It takes money for programs and education, and we must be sure the public's money is fairly distributed.
We rely on our state officials to separate public health decisions from politics, and the OPEGA reports makes it very clear that did not happen. That conclusion could cause a person to wonder what else is being tilted in the name of politics.
The Attorney General's Office must investigate this matter. It must require Mayhew — the designated "decider" — to explain her role and her motives. It must examine why the tribal district's funding doubled after a tribal liaison was put in charge of the process, while other award-winning coalitions saw funding reduced by more than half.
We must restore trust that Maine's DHHS officials do not allow personal preferences and politics to decide how public funds are distributed.
The opinions offered in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.