Intimidating CDC officials to stay silent?

0

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement