AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee decided to dig deeper Friday into a case that involves the mishandling and possibly illegal destruction of public documents by officials at the Maine Center for Disease Control, an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Voting 9-2, the panel agreed to invite CDC employees involved in the controversy to testify in front of them.

“I think this is a very, very serious issue, that we all have to take seriously and if there is any part of role here that we should take seriously, it’s the job of making sure that state government earns and deserves the trust of the governed,” said the panel’s House Chairman, Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston.

The panel decided against launching a formal investigation and forcing witnesses to appear under its power of subpoena.

But complicating the inquest is a pending federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed against the state and a top official at the CDC by a former Maine CDC employee.

Sharon 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.

The documents had been requested for review by the Sun Journal under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

The agency 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.

Cynthia Dill, a former state senator and the attorney for the employee in the whistle-blower case, said Friday many of the communications around the Healthy Maine Partnerships selection process were done by text messaging — via BlackBerry-like devices and smartphones — and may be beyond the scope of a formal FOAA request. 

At stake is how nearly $5 million — much of it federal tobacco settlement funds — was redistributed by agency officials.

Also in question is $500,000 in funds awarded to the Houlton Band of Maliseets’ HMP. It remains unclear who authorized the contract for that HMP, and despite one employee saying she signed the contract, an investigation by the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability determined she did not.  

“We found it odd that (the) director was not able to tell us who developed the contract, even though she said she signed it,” OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft told the legislative panel Friday.

CDC officials, including the agency’s attorney, acknowledged the process they used to select those nine lead HMP programs was flawed and one that could logically lead to questioning.

Part of that process involved CDC workers conducting surveys using the online tool Survey Monkey, which prompted some concern from the committee membership. That selection process meant large boosts in funding for the newly established lead agencies but cuts in funding for the remaining partnerships.

Concern over the way the process was handled triggered an investigation by OPEGA, which issued its findings earlier this month.

The report showed supervisors had ordered the destruction of public documents, among other findings.

Committee members Friday continued to voice concern and call for accountability in the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services.

“If somebody intentionally did something that was against policy or against the law, and your internal investigation determines that, there will be consequences, will there not?” state Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, asked CDC officials.

Kevin Wells, general counsel for DHHS, deflected the question by saying that would be the case, but it had not been determined as fact that any wrongdoing was intentional.

“Posing your hypothetical, if all that is clear, then absolutely, yes,” Wells said. “But that is part of the process identifying whether there was clear policy, clear expectation, clear law on any of those issues — assuming that is true, then absolutely, yes.”

Lawmakers on the panel continued to voice frustration over the lack of specific details on when documents were requested and when the order came to destroy those documents. 

State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who began questioning the reallocation of funding in 2012 when Healthy Androscoggin, the HMP that serves about 125,000 people in Androscoggin County including the cities of Lewiston and Auburn, learned it was not selected as a lead agency.

Craven said at the time the selection criteria used by the CDC ignored the population being served; the CDC later said that was not a criterion it looked at in picking the lead agencies.

On Friday, Craven said she remained concerned about the culture at the CDC and said she had heard from employees who also were concerned. Craven said trust in the CDC was essential, but that trust had been undermined by the actions around the lead HMP selection process.

“The culture is not right, when it should be the most open agency to protect our health and our well-being,” Craven said.

She said the criteria used to assess the HMPs’ ability to be lead was subjective and not objective. 

Lawmakers have stopped short of saying the selection process was rigged, but Friday it became clear the process was changed and new criteria added and scores weighted after the assessment process began.

Jay Yoe, director of Continuous Quality Improvement at DHHS, said that if he had been asked, he would have advised against changing the selection criteria midway through the process. Yoe said he had more than 20 years of assessment experience.

“That process is not a process that I would have instructed them to do, if I was in there beforehand,” Yoe said.

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Healthy Maine Partnerships’ FY13 Contracts and Funding

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