A former Centers for Disease Control division director told legislators Friday that her bosses ordered her and another worker to shred public documents because their bosses expected someone to ask for those documents.

A Department of Health and Human Services representative acknowledged there were “flaws” in the way the CDC distributed millions of dollars to the Healthy Maine Partnerships program.

And a representative for the American Heart Association and other health organizations said problems at the CDC risked destroying the public’s trust in an essential agency. 

“We really hope that in the future, the public will be able to trust the Maine CDC, that their processes and what they’re doing benefits the public’s health first,” Becky Smith said. “Because we need to know, if the Maine CDC is out there saying something is critically important that the public (should) do, we need to make sure the public is listening.”

For more than five hours Friday, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee heard from the public and government officials about the recent state investigation into the CDC.

In that investigation, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found a host of problems with the way the CDC handled funding the Healthy Maine Partnerships programs in 2012. Included in that report: supervisors ordering the destruction of public documents, funding criteria that was changed during the selection process, Healthy Maine Partnerships funding scores that were changed just before the final selection, documents that were created after the fact in response to Freedom of Access Act requests, a $500,000 tribal contract that seemed to appear out of nowhere and a critical Healthy Maine Partnerships scoring sheet that vanished.

Committee members received OPEGA’s report last month. They were scheduled to vote on the report Friday and to consider possible actions in light of the investigation’s findings, but they put off that vote until their next meeting later this month. Members said they still had too many questions and too much to consider for a vote Friday.  

They agreed that important public documents should be safeguarded. But which documents are important? Are Maine’s rules about that clear? Were CDC supervisors really trying to hide something or did they honestly think those working papers weren’t necessary? And if they were innocently ignorant about the need to hold on to those documents, why weren’t they better trained? Where was the CDC’s records officer, who was supposed to know the need for document preservation?

About half a dozen people spoke during the public comment session Friday and several public officials answered questions during the work session.

One of the speakers during the public comment session was Sharon Leahy-Lind, the former CDC division director who alleged wrongdoing by her CDC bosses in the spring of 2013. She told committee members that her bosses knew well what they were doing.

“In June 2012, I was ordered to shred public documents relating to the entire Healthy Maine Partnerships process by the CDC deputy director,” she said. “The stated reason was because she anticipated there would be a (Freedom of Access Act) request for these documents.”

Leahy-Lind said she refused to destroy the documents and told a number of supervisors, including CDC Director Sheila Pinette, about the order, but there was little to no follow-up. Later, at least one document she had safeguarded in a file went missing while she was on leave, she said. 

Bill Boeschenstein, chief operating officer for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, declined to comment on Leahy-Lind’s allegations, citing her pending lawsuit. Citing private personnel issues, he also declined to comment on what consequences, if any, have resulted for the supervisors at the heart of the investigation.

However, he said, workers should have been aware of the need to be fair and transparent in their dealings. Shredding documents, he agreed, is not consistent with transparency.

“I would say that if a person knowingly knew that a document was to be retained and they ordered it shredded, that is wrong,” he said. “However, there’s a lot of gray area about what should be retained.” 

He acknowledged to committee members that there were definite flaws in the way the department handled funding for the Health Maine Partnerships and the process was “poorly implemented.” He said the department was working on that.

But while he and others agreed the CDC made mistakes, others told the committee that their dealings with the CDC have always been good. They questioned the validity of OPEGA’s findings.

“I would  just like you to consider that the leadership at the CDC, especially those accused of wrongdoing, is strong, and the individual making the allegations has ulterior motives,” said Kristi Ricker, director of Wabanaki Public Health, which holds the Tribal Healthy Maine Partnership contract.

When questioned about that by a committee member, Ricker said she didn’t know what those ulterior motives might be but, “It seems to be a personnel issue.”

She and others raised concerns about OPEGA’s recommendation that the CDC clarify the roles and responsibilities of the tribal contract and make them consistent with those for other HMPs. They said the tribal HMP deals with a different population from the others and has different needs.

“Frankly, this contract needed to be handled differently because it is based on a government-to-government relationship, which is unique to the tribal district,” Ricker said.

OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft said the report’s recommendation was meant to encourage the CDC to better handle the tribal contract internally, not to disregard the special needs of the tribal HMP. She said no one at the CDC seemed to know who came up with the $500,000 tribal HMP contract, and that was a problem. 

“What we’re saying is it would make sense for CDC to make sure everyone’s clear what the roles and responsibilities are for that tribal contract,” Ashcroft said.

The OPEGA report offered four recommendations, including that the CDC get guidance on document destruction and retention from DHHS and that it adhere as closely as possible to the rules for formal, competitive grant processes, even if it’s awarding money outside that process.

Judith Meyer, daytime managing editor at the Sun Journal and vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, spoke to the committee and added her own recommendation Friday. She suggested giving more power to the state’s Freedom of Access Act ombudsman, possibly allowing her to conduct hearings, compel people to produce documents and conduct regular FOAA audits to ensure departments are in compliance.

“I come to this belief grudgingly,” Meyer said. “I am all about, ‘Let’s educate people; let’s push people to say, “Let’s do the right thing.”‘ But this instance of destroying documents, creating documents, not providing documents, is so egregious that I do believe Maine needs to do something a little bit more severe. And it pains me to say that because I think education usually works really, really well.”

The committee could decide to introduce legislation to fix some of the problems OPEGA found. It could make its own recommendations to the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, though those recommendations would not have the force of law.

The next committee meeting will be held Jan. 24.

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