AUGUSTA — A legislative committee wants to hear about a document-shredding scandal from Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials, but none of the officials invited to testify has agreed to do so.
It was unclear Monday whether the Government Oversight Committee would exercise its power to subpoena the officials at the heart of the scandal in an effort to compel them to testify.
The committee’s Senate chairwoman, Emily Cain, D-Orono, said all the state officials involved in the case, including agency director Dr. Sheila Pinette, had declined written invitations to testify about a recently released report from the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
Also invited to attend were Christine Zukas, a CDC deputy director; Deborah Wigand, a division director; Andrew Finch, the senior program manager for the HMPs; and Lisa Sockabasin, the director of the CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity.
The destruction came to light after a federal whistleblower lawsuit was filed by a former CDC official, Sharon Leahy-Lind, who says she was told, but refused, to destroy documents related to the funding the state’s Health Maine Partnership programs.
Leahy-Lind was also invited to appear before the oversight committee, and agreed, but it was unclear Monday whether she would appear, according to Cain.
The program is funded with money the state receives as a portion of a multi-state settlement between the states and the tobacco industry, the result of a landmark federal lawsuit.
Recently Leahy-Lind and an attorney who represents her said the state agency is also the subject of FBI scrutiny.
The Government Oversight Committee is the only Maine legislative committee with subpoena powers.
The committee voted, 9-2, on Jan. 24, to first informally invite the Maine CDC official to appear. Members also discussed the possibility of using the committee’s subpoena powers if that failed.
A majority of the committee — the only one in the Legislature evenly split between Democrats and Republicans — would have to vote in favor of legally compelling the CDC officials to appear but even then the officials may be able to decline offering any testimony that could be incriminating against them.
Cain said Monday that all five individuals invited to participate in the oversight committee’s meeting were advised by the attorney who represents the CDC that their testimony before the Legislature would be conducted on their own time and would not be on the behalf of the agency.
Leahy-Lind said she was told in 2012 to shred documents that detailed the scoring and selection process for funding the state’s Healthy Maine Partnerships, community coalitions that provide exercise, diet and anti-tobacco programs, among other things.
In a complaint before the Maine Human Rights Commission, Leahy-Lind also described workplace harassment and discrimination after she refused the order to destroy records. Leahy-Lind said she was cursed at, and at one point, even kicked under the table by a supervisor.
The original scoring documents had been requested for review by the Sun Journal under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act as the CDC was attempting to redistribute a reduced amount of funding to the agencies, the result of a state budget cut.
Officials decided to create nine lead agencies that would serve as umbrella organizations for the remaining 18. In the process, some agencies saw dramatic decreases in funding while others were assigned lead status and their budgets were increased.
State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston and State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, requested meetings with CDC and Department of Health and Human Services officials to determine how the funding reallocation was determined.
Both Craven and Rotundo said at the time the assessment used to determine the lead agencies was flawed, many of the criteria were subjective in nature and other criteria, including how big of a population an agency was serving, were discarded.
Among other things, an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability’s investigation found that the methodology used by the CDC to determine healthy coalition funding was flawed, unorganized and not well-documented, and that the criteria changed multiple times during the scoring process, which is contrary to standard practice under the RFP — request for proposal — process.
Craven, who also serves on the oversight committee, said she was disappointed to learn CDC officials would not come before the committee willingly.
“Everything has two sides and I think I would have liked to have heard what they had to say,” Craven said. She said she was particularly interested given that CDC and DHHS officials were dismissive of her concerns about the funding redistribution when she first questioned it in 2012.
Cain said the committee would press on but would have to likely make a formal decision on whether to use its subpoena power. Cain said there were still too many unanswered questions.
“We cannot answer these questions, around what happened and why it happened and then be able to then take next steps or offer advice or bring forward legislation to correct actions if we can’t find out what actually happened,” Cain said. “That’s why it’s essential for us to be able to talk with these individuals because they hold those pieces of information.”
The committee meets again Friday at 9 a.m.