AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee on Tuesday were asked to suspend their investigation into the destruction of public documents by officials at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention in June 2013.
The request came via a letter from private lawyers hired by the state to defend the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC in a civil lawsuit filed by a former CDC employee, who claims she was told to destroy public records and then harassed and discriminated against by her supervisors for refusing to do so.
Also being sued is CDC Director Sheila Pinette, who has retained a private attorney.
Government Oversight Committee members also learned that five CDC officials, including Pinette, who had been invited to tell their sides of the story to the committee had declined to participate in hearings.
GOC members must now decide whether they will use the committee’s subpoena powers to legally compel those individuals to appear before them. It is the only legislative committee that can use subpoenas to bring witnesses before it.
The committee is to meet again at 9 a.m. Friday and is expected to discuss whether it should go that route. It will discuss its other options and possibly vote on what its next move should be, said the committee’s Senate chairwoman, Emily Cain, D-Orono.
Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee said they were disappointed by the refusal of CDC officials to come willingly to the committee to provide information about the destruction of public records.
According to Sharon Leahy-Lind, the employee who is suing the department and Pinette in federal court, she was ordered to destroy documents used to rank Healthy Maine Partnerships participating agencies after the Sun Journal requested copies of the records in June 2012.
The agency eventually produced records for the newspaper, but Leahy-Lind said they were not the original documents, bringing into question the authenticity of the records and the entire process that was used to distribute $4.7 million in tobacco settlement funds.
Leahy-Lind is the former director for the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health. She and her lawyer have said the FBI has interviewed Leahy-Lind regarding wrongdoing at the CDC.
The Government Oversight Committee’s investigatory arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, in December released the results of its investigation into the matter. Findings supported Leahy-Lind’s claim that public records were destroyed after the Sun Journal requested those records under the state’s open records law, the Freedom of Access Act.
Lawyers Eric Uhl and Jonathan Shapiro were hired by the state after the lawyers in the state Attorney General’s office asked to withdraw from defending Pinette and the agency, citing “a recent and unexpected development.”
So far, that development has not been detailed publicly or in any public document.
One of the duties of the AG’s office is to represent the state of Maine, including defending the state and its agencies in court. But, according to the motion filed in federal court, “the Office of the Attorney General is unable to continue to represent either the CDC or Pinette in this litigation.”
Also in January, computer hard drives and the hard drive of a color copier at the CDC were taken into custody by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
Over the past month, the GOC has been holding hearings around the OPEGA report in an effort to determine how public records were destroyed and why, and also what needs to be done to prevent similar actions from occurring in the future.
But in their letter delivered to all GOC members Tuesday, Shapiro and Uhl asked that legislative action be put on hold until the civil case involving Leahy-Lind and others at the CDC is resolved.
“… we respectfully request that the GOC suspend its hearings regarding the (OPEGA report) pending the outcome of court proceedings in the lawsuit,” Uhl and Shapiro wrote in a letter signed by Uhl. “In the alternative, we respectfully request the CDC refrain from seeking testimony from any CDC employee who is a party to, or who may be called as a witness in, the pending lawsuit.”
The lawyers also wrote that continued action by the GOC “creates significant risk and concern that the GOC’s hearings may compromise our ability to fully and properly defend the DHHS against the disputed claims being asserted in the lawsuit.”
The attorneys also note, “The DHHS vigorously disputes the claims that have been asserted by the former CDC employee in the lawsuit and is actively defending against those claims.”
One GOC member, state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who is a lawyer, said concerns that the state may not be able to adequately defend itself if the GOC moves forward will have to be discussed with committee members in earnest on Friday.
But Cain, the Senate chairwoman of the committee, said Tuesday she believes the committee should continue its work.
“The assertion in the letter that we should stop what we are doing, essentially cease and desist the investigation and work of the Government Oversight Committee, to me is offensive and shortsighted,” Cain said.
She said the GOC was well into its investigation, and in order to determine what happened and to produce recommendations to prevent it from recurring in state government, they needed to hear from all individuals involved.
She said GOC wasn’t set up to enforce the law or to serve as a judge and jury but was meant to fix problems and ensure the accountability of state government.
“For these individuals who we are seeking to speak with, it’s simply a matter of telling the truth,” Cain said. “And the truth should be pretty easy to keep track of, whether it’s in front of the Government Oversight Committee or as part of a legal process, the truth is the truth and we just need to find it.”
Cain said she was unsure what the committee would do when it meets at 9 a.m. Friday, but all members would be given a chance to weigh in on the matter.