AUGUSTA — After six hours of testimony Friday from the six current and former Maine Center for Disease Control officials at the heart of a state document-shredding probe, two things became clear.
Deputy Director Christine Zukas told employees to destroy public documents related to funding for the Healthy Maine Partnerships program.
And scoring was changed at the end of the competitive grant process, sending public money to a favored partnership whose original scores didn't support it — possibly at the direction of CDC Director Sheila Pinette.
"I believe it was Dr. Pinette. It could have been the (CDC work) group, but I believe that's how it happened," Zukas said. "There was a belief that the (original scoring) methodology must have been flawed to come up with results that were so unexpected."
Little else became clear Friday as the six contradicted each other, blamed each other and, in some cases, pleaded ignorance or poor recollection about the process they helped create or oversee.
"If a meeting occurred (with Pinette), I probably was there, but I do not remember the conversation," said Lisa Sockabasin, director of the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity.
However, despite initial concerns that some of the six would refuse to speak in public, they answered all of the Government Oversight Committee's questions — even if the answer was, "I don't know."
The committee had subpoenaed Pinette, Zukas, Sockabasin, Division Director Deborah Wigand, Healthy Maine Partnerships Senior Program Manager Andrew Finch and former Division Director Sharon Leahy-Lind to appear before it as part of its investigation into document-destruction at the CDC.
Five of the six had asked that the committee go into executive session, a move that could have effectively sealed their testimony from the public. The committee refused, voting 7-3 Friday morning to keep the meeting open.
Only Leahy-Lind, whose document-shredding allegations led to the investigation, did not ask to testify behind closed doors.
The allegations came to light last spring when Leahy-Lind, then-director of the CDC's Division of Local Public Health, filed a complaint of harassment with the Maine Human Rights Commission. She has since filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit.
She has said her bosses at the CDC told her to shred public documents related to the grant funding for the state's Healthy Maine Partnerships program. When she refused, she said, she faced harassment and retaliation. She has since left her job at the CDC.
At the Oversight Committee's behest, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigated the CDC over several months. Its December report noted a host of problems, including supervisors who ordered the destruction of public documents, workers who created documents specifically to fulfill a Sun Journal Freedom of Access Act request, funding criteria that was changed during the selection process, Healthy Maine Partnerships funding scores that were changed just before the final selection, a tribal contract that OPEGA couldn't discern who was responsible for developing, reviewing or approving, and a critical scoring sheet that vanished.
Money, the investigation found, may have gone where it shouldn't have.
Under questioning Friday, the officials confirmed many of OPEGA's findings.
They painted a picture of a small, core group of CDC officials who hastily pulled together a competitive grant process so the department could hand out to 27 Healthy Maine Partnerships about $4.7 million that had come in late from the state. Criteria were created; scores were reached.
When the dust settled, they had created nine lead partnerships that would get more money and have greater responsibilities than the other 18. In the Penquis District, one partnership had the highest score and the lead position.
But then the scoring criteria were changed. The new criteria were subjective — based largely on CDC officials' opinions — and given twice the weight as some others. Suddenly, a different Penquis District partnership — Bangor Region Public Health and Wellness — had lead status.
Finch said criteria changed because the scores were too close, making the difference between them statistically insignificant.
Committee members didn't buy it.
"I tend to see life through sports," said State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. "If the Patriots beat the Jets 21-20 and the Patriots have three touchdowns and the Jets have two touchdowns and two field goals, three points each, and after the game the NFL commissioner decides, 'You know what, we're going to give field goals four points instead of three, and now the final score is New York 22 and New England 21,' how is that different than what happened here?"
"I don't know that it is," Finch said.
Other witnesses noted that the person who oversaw the Bangor Region partnership — Shawn Yardley — was known and liked by the CDC.
The six current and former CDC officials generally agreed that there had been some surprise or concern when the first partnership scored higher than the Bangor Region HMP. But they disagreed about who, exactly, was concerned. And they disagreed about who wanted something done about it.
Zukas said she believed Pinette, the head of the CDC, directed the scoring methodology to be changed "to see what leads shook out."
"There was concern about Bangor not being in the lead," Zukas said.
Leahy-Lind also pointed to Pinette.
"I said, 'How did Bangor Public Health get to be lead? That wasn't what I had seen or what we had discussed at the last meeting,'" Leahy-Lind told the committee. "Dr. Pinette said, 'Oh, that's political.' I said, 'Political?' And she said, 'Well, Shawn Yardley's been a wonderful partner and he's head of the (Statewide Coordinating Council) and we really had to give it to them.'"
Pinette, however, told the committee that she didn't know Yardley was responsible for the Bangor Region partnership and she barely noticed that his group had fallen to second place. She said she approved additional scoring and weighting, but she didn't know that new scores would be so subjective.
She said she did not push to make Bangor the lead.
"What I think was happening was we were sailing through uncharted waters," Pinette said. "We didn't really know a process. There were a lot of bumps along the way. We weren't even certain if what we were doing was appropriate. So the criteria, I believe, as we were going along, my understanding was that we were trying to establish a criteria that was effective and fair. I think my staff was very thoughtful about trying to do that."
As the Bangor Region Healthy Maine Partnership made its way to lead agency, something else happened: Zukas told workers to destroy the working documents related to that scoring.
She told the Government Oversight Committee she did that after Pinette confused an old score sheet with a new one. Zukas said she routinely got rid of working documents while at the CDC, and in this situation she wanted the old score sheets to be destroyed as "version control" — and she said she told that at the time to Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who oversees the CDC.
"I did not feel I was doing anything improper," Zukas said.
However, Leahy-Lind said Zukas ordered her to destroy documents because she believed someone would soon issue a Freedom of Access Act request for them. Zukas denied that, saying she had no way of knowing whether a FOAA request was coming.
Committee members questioned the truth of that.
"It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if anyone learned about those changes in the rules and changes in the results, someone might start asking for documents, right?" Katz asked.
"One could come to that conclusion," Zukas said.
Pinette said she was shocked when she learned Zukas had wanted documents destroyed, though she acknowledged that she had given Zukas an old version of a scoring document when she asked for it.
"Was it your expectation that the document you gave to Ms. Zukas would be retained or destroyed?" state Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, asked.
"You know what, I don't know," Pinette said. "I just thought that she would take it and hold it. I don't know. I don't know what I thought. I just gave it to her. I just thought she would file it away, I guess."
The committee will resume its consideration of the CDC matter on Friday, March 28.