If the Maine Attorney General’s Office follows the recommendation of a Kennebec County deputy district attorney, no one at the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention will face charges for the destruction of public documents.

In January 2014, Attorney General Janet Mills asked the Augusta-area deputy district attorney, Fernand LaRochelle, to look into possible civil or criminal violations related to the destruction of public health grant-funding documents as reported by the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability. Although the AG’s Office would have had jurisdiction, Mills said in her letter that her office “wishes to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

LaRochelle had served as assistant attorney general for more than 30 years before retiring. He joined the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office in 2013. Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said LaRochelle was under the supervision of the attorney general, not her office, in his examination of the CDC case.

In December, almost a year after Mills asked him to consider whether charges were warranted, LaRochelle told her he did not believe there were “provable civil or criminal violations.”

In his letter to Mills, LaRochelle said all copies of a public funding document appeared to have been destroyed and CDC Deputy Director Christine Zukas had admitted to “directing” their destruction. 

However, he said, he wasn’t certain whether Zukas and other CDC leaders realized the paperwork should have been protected as a public document.

Since the competitive grant process was atypical — CDC leaders decided to forgo the standard, formal process because they said they were short on time — it’s unclear whether the normal rules applied. And, he said, citing the report by OPEGA, there was not enough state or department guidance to clarify that such documents should have been kept.

The question, he said, came down to whether Zukas intentionally sought to destroy public documents and knew she did not have the authority to do so.

“Given the lack of formal guidance either on the state or department level as noted by OPEGA, it is not clear to me that she did know,” he said. 

Zukas has said she was concerned people would get confused when faced with an early draft of the grant score sheet, so she wanted those drafts destroyed as “version control.”

Those score sheets proved the final scores for Healthy Maine Partnerships organizations were changed, resulting in taxpayer money being sent to an organization that had come in second place originally but was favored by CDC officials. 

CDC leaders, including Zukas, have said they considered that score sheet to be a draft and a working document that was not covered by the same rules that protect public documents. They have said they’d received no training in which public documents to keep and which to throw out.

However, a year before Zukas told CDC workers to get rid of that paperwork, CDC senior managers learned the department was not complying with record-retention policies, and Zukas was assigned to oversee the appointment of people to oversee the retention of public documents within the CDC.

A CDC spokesman did not respond to a request for Zukas to comment on LaRochelle’s recommendation.

It was unclear Wednesday whether the AG’s Office would follow LaRochelle’s recommendation. AG’s Office spokesman Tim Feeley offered little comment.

“The letters speak for themselves,” he said.

The CDC officials at the heart of the document-shredding case — Zukas, CDC Director Sheila Pinette and Office of Minority Health and Health Equity Director Lisa Sockabasin — remain employed at the CDC. They have not faced disciplinary action.

A federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed by a former CDC division director and current office manager was settled earlier this month. Zukas, Pinette, Sockabasin and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, were defendants.

Although the Government Oversight Committee formally notified the AG’s Office in May that there may have been wrongdoing within the CDC, Mills had apparently reached that conclusion after OPEGA released its report in December 2013. She asked LaRochelle to look into possible charges four months before the committee notified her.  

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CDC HMP FOAA LaRochelle Letters

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