Intimidating CDC officials to stay silent?

Looks like the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee might have to exercise its little-implemented subpoena power after all.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials have left it no choice.

None of the CDC officials “invited” by the GOC to attend this Friday’s committee meeting, to answer questions about funding for Healthy Maine Partnerships, has agreed to appear. So, if GOC wants answers to dozens of pending questions, it’s going to have to make attendance mandatory.

Of course, that doesn’t mean officials have to answer questions. It just means they can be forced to sit in a chair and face the committee.

As they should.

In December, the GOC began its review of the Report on Healthy Maine Partnerships’ FY13 Contracts and Funding, produced by the nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. The report revealed that the assessment used to award a $602,941 contract to Bangor Region Public Health may have been manipulated to ensure that office’s funding; that CDC officials ordered the destruction of public records to evade a Freedom of Access Act request from the Sun Journal; and that other records were created so the agency could respond to that FOAA request.

William Boeschenstein Jr., the chief operating officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, has already publicly acknowledged that the HMP funding process was flawed and mistakes were made. His repeated concessions prompted questions from the GOC, most of which Boeschenstein could not answer because he wasn’t directly involved in the funding process, while in some cases he would not answer because of pending federal litigation against the DHHS and the CDC.

So, if Boeschenstein can’t or won’t answer questions, the next logical step for the GOC is to ask questions of officials who were directly involved. Cut out middleman Boeschenstein.

In fact, last month GOC Senate Chairwoman Emily Cain asked Boeschenstein and DHHS General Counsel Kevin Wells whether either thought it made sense to invite CDC officials to answer questions. Neither raised any objection, other than to point out officials may not be able to answer questions directly linked to the litigation.

So, based on that response and wanting to avoid the heavy-handed subpoena option, the GOC invited CDC Director Sheila Pinette, Deputy Director Christine Zukas, Debra Wigand, a division director, Andrew Finch, senior program manager for the HMPs, and Lisa Sockabasin, director of the CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, to answer questions.

Each has declined to do so.

But, then, they appear to have been intimidated to stay away from the GOC.

In a group email to the five officials, Wells made it clear that each is free to attend the meeting, but should anyone choose to do so, no one is authorized to speak for the DHHS or CDC in any capacity, and that attendance would be conducted on their own time and considered only “in your personal capacity.”

What personal capacity?

These state officials have been invited to answer questions about what they did while working for the state to implement state programs that are partly funded with state dollars. Their only capacity here is that of state employees.

Further, Wells makes it clear that if there should be some question about what to do, the five are free to contact their own attorneys.

Why?

In Boeschenstein’s appearances before the GOC, Wells was seated right next to the COO, advising him what to answer. Wells also offered counsel to Jay Yoe, director of the DHHS Office of Quality Improvement, last month when he appeared before the GOC.

So, Boeschenstein and Yoe are eligible for counsel from their employer, but other employees are not? That’s just plain wrong, particularly when it comes to Finch and Wigand.

Wigand, a longtime, respected CDC employee, is a division director squeezed between employee complaints of wrongdoing and senior officials’ directives to ignore those complaints.

And, Finch — who appropriately refused a directive to destroy public documents — is guilty only of not obeying that directive.

The decision by the DHHS not to offer staff counsel — for purposes of the GOC questioning — to Pinette, whom was aware of the destruction of documents, and Zukas, who OPEGA has found ordered that destruction, and Sockabasin, who says she signed an HMP contract even though she doesn’t know where it came from (and didn’t actually sign it), seems to indicate the CDC is willing to hang these three out to dry. How nice.

Boeschenstein signed contracts, too, including the questionable Bangor contract for FY13 and FY14, and nine more in 2012 and 2013. The remaining contracts were all signed by Robert Rude, the former DHHS deputy commissioner of finance, including one for Portland in which Rude crossed off Boeschenstein’s name and lettered in his own.

If the GOC is going to sort through allegations, conflicting statements of various CDC officials made to OPEGA and outright evidence of records destruction, questions have to be asked and answered.

Isn’t that what we all want? The facts?

Unfortunately, DHHS and CDC officials don’t seem all that interested in facts, first in destroying the very working papers that would have explained the questionable funding decisions and now in refusing to answer questions about why that was done.

There’s more.

On Tuesday, DHHS’ private attorneys asked the GOC to suspend its investigation because the scrutiny was interfering with their ability to defend the DHHS in the federal case.

What? Is that really an option? Ask government to stop investigating allegations of wrongdoing because you’re being sued for wrongdoing?

The GOC must not suspend its work if it’s serious about restoring the public’s trust, as lawmakers have said they intend to do.

And, the CDC must stop intimidating employees from coming forward to do the right thing.

In spite of personal and professional risk, we’ve seen tremendous courage in former CDC official Sharon Leahy-Lind confronting state government to seek the truth.

She cannot be the only one willing to do that.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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Comments

Intimidating CDC officials to stay silent

The tactic is typical Lepage administration BS, attend on your own personal time that is amazing!

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

The DHHS/CDC is

not above the law. The attorneys who want the GOC to desist are certainly incompetent. ""Better surrender or we might have to do our job to get paid by the taxpayers, making our job harder" These guys are just nuts!

With the hard drives of the copier and PC's in discovery, I really think that is why the AG stepped aside, knowing they wouldn't be able to represent the CDC for its cover up. It is the AG's job to represent the DHHS and the CDC and when they bail, there is a smoking gun.

Those that are being intimidated should be notifying the AG and they would have a better leg to stand on.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I love how they simplify the offences............

"The HMP funding process was flawed, and mistakes were made". Exactly what is the DHHS's definition of "flawed"? They feel that by using less offensive wording, they can brush this under the rug, as just a minor incident. Everyone's happy and all is well in Corruptionville. If they make it sound innocent, there doesn't need to be an elaborate investigation, it was just a little flaw, some mistakes were made.
This I'm afraid is part of what ails the DHHS. Failure to accurately address what needs to be addressed. Failure to hold people accountable and failure to protect those willing to fight for the truth. Maybe if we were to use more jail cells instead of fancy words to address these things, the problem itself might go away...............

AL PELLETIER's picture

And in all this commotion

Lepage, the mouthiest man in Augusta, remains silent. Go figure?

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Pauly is getting tarred and feathered on HP

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/11/paul-lepage-drug-overdose_n_477...

Maine Governor wants drug addicts to drop dead....

The thousands of monies spent on investigations, hiring more law enforcement, more taxpayers money on health services and this dweeb LePage wants a simple drug used by others to save lives is not good enough for Mainers addicts.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Jerry, actually it's his twisted train of thought..........

He thinks that making the Narcon more readily available for swift action to save a life, will encourage more people to intentionally cheat death just because there might be a drug right there to bring them back. He fails to take in to consideration the possibility of an accidental opioid overdose. It does happen to people who are following the directions. Either way, LePage, as usual, is wrong on this. His lack of knowledge is outdone only by his lack of empathy. This is the guy who wants to start a new war on drugs in Maine? I have to keep reminding myself, "just one more year". Unfortunately some of us might not make it that long with LePage at the helm........................................................

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Bingo Frank--twisted thought is being to kind....

The amazing scope of these SMALL thinking folks can only relate all this to heroin drug users. It is far from the truth, because opiates are used by many many people for many other medical reasons. While medics, like I was before I left the military, have dealt with drug related overdoses and having the right tools to SAVE lives in that decisive moment, helps them and the families that want to see them survive.

Even with overdoses, which I had been around from others using, it is not only an ugly sight, but a helpless situation when a person is turning cyanotic and foaming at the mouth, to were CPR and aggressive chest thumping back in the days is a situation you never forget and feel helpless. Even Thorazine shufflers need this medical treatment on overdoses.

Many law enforcement and medical EMT's should have this, to SAVE LIVES...it is a NO BRAINIER.....

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