Officials to be subpoenaed in CDC document-shredding probe

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AUGUSTA — The Maine Center for Disease Control officials at the heart of a document-shredding probe will be required to appear before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee to answer questions.

CDC Director Sheila Pinette, Deputy Director Christine Zukas, Office of Minority Health and Health Equity Director Lisa Sockabasin, Division Director Deborah Wigand and Senior Program Manager Andrew Finch had declined the committee’s invitation to appear Friday. Unhappy with that refusal, committee members voted Friday to subpoena them.

“Our (Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability) staff has clearly found smoke there and the people who know what happened and whether there’s really fire aren’t anxious to talk with us. So unless we do issue subpoenas we’ll never find out what happened,” Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said. “And I think as a committee our job is to get to the bottom of this.”

The committee is the only legislative one that can subpoenas witnesses to appear before it. If CDC officials still refuse to appear, the committee can to go the Superior Court to compel them to obey.

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Sharon Leahy-Lind, the former CDC division director whose document-shredding allegations led to the investigation, also was invited to appear before the committee Friday. She accepted the invitation but was not at the meeting because the committee planned to focus its time and attention on what to do about the five who refused the invitation. Her lawyer, however, attended.

Leahy-Lind will also receive a subpoena and her lawyer, Cynthia Dill, said Leahy-Lind will follow it.

The six will be subpoenaed to appear at the committee’s March 14 meeting and will be placed under oath to answer questions.

The allegations of document destruction came to light last spring when Leahy-Lind, then-director for 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 Health Maine Partnership program. When she refused, she said, she faced harassment and retaliation. She has since left her job at the CDC.

A CDC office manager has echoed Leahy-Lind’s allegations and is seeking to be added as a plaintiff to her suit.

At the committee’s behest, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigated the CDC over several months and in December found 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 Healthy Maine Partnerships contract that the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability couldn’t discern who was responsible for developing, reviewing or approving, and a critical Healthy Maine Partnerships scoring sheet that has vanished.

Money, the investigation found, may have gone where it shouldn’t have.

Lawyers from the Maine Attorney General’s Office had been defending CDC Director Sheila Pinette and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, in Leahy-Lind’s suit. Last month, the AG’s office withdrew that representation citing “a recent and unexpected development.”

The state has since hired private lawyers for DHHS and Pinette. The new lawyers for DHHS last week asked the Government Oversight Committee to suspend its document-shredding investigation or, at least, stop seeking testimony from any CDC employee who is party to or may be called as a witness in the lawsuit. 

In a letter to committee members, the lawyers wrote that continued action by the Government Oversight Committee “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.”

Committee members on Friday were not pleased by the request.

“We’re not trying to try the civil suit here. At all. I’m saying that explicitly. That’s not our cause. That’s not our interest,” Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, co-chairwoman of the committee, said. “Our purview is the transparency and accountability and workings of state government where it’s very clear, based on our report, that something went wrong. And we’re trying to determine what that was so it doesn’t happen again.”

The DHHS lawyers also sent a group email to the five CDC officials invited before the committee. It made clear that the officials were not authorized to speak for DHHS or CDC and that attendance would be done in their personal capacity and, it insinuated, on their own time.

Committee members were not pleased by that, either.

“That’s absurd to put that type of constraint on them, whoever they are. I don’t care who they are. Because that’s the only thing I want to talk to them about: what they did in their official capacity,” Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, said. “I don’t recall this happening before. That’s what we’re here for. Other state agencies have complied, as far as I can recall, by coming in and, at least to the best of their ability, answering questions having to do with their official capacity.”

A number of members were concerned that suspending their investigation or not exercising their subpoena power would send the wrong message.

“If we drop this inquiry, I think that is not the way to go. That is impeding (the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability) or setting the wrong precedence for OPEGA in the future for any investigation that they might be doing and have to stop because we get a letter from an attorney directing us to not go forward with the investigation,” Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said.

Although no members spoke in favor of dropping the investigation, some questioned whether the five officials would answer questions even when summoned by subpoena and placed under oath. Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability Director Beth Ashcroft said officials who are fearful of talking might find a subpoena helpful.

“By virtue of being under oath and being subpoenaed, it’s clear they need to make the choice to come. In terms of their vulnerability . . . it’s clear they’re expected to be there and they’re expected to (tell) the truth, and it’s done in a public forum,” Ashcrosft said. 

“I would hope that by virtue of anything that they might say there, that the fact that they’ve done that would be some measure of protection against the agency then taking any sort of repercussions or retaliations against them,” she said.

At one point, the Republican members of the committee asked to caucus alone to discuss the committee’s next move. They returned several minutes later but offered no additional questions or stipulations.

The vote was unanimous. 

ltice@sunjournal.com

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