On Friday, one political appointee and four public employees will appear before the state Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee to be questioned about the process they created and then implemented to fund Healthy Maine Partnerships in 2012.

They are:

Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC Deputy Director Christine Zukas, Office of Minority Health and Health Equity Director Lisa Sockabasin, CDC division director Debra Wigand and Senior HMP Project Manager Andrew Finch.

Each was subpoenaed to appear after they declined a less formal invitation to attend last month, so it’s fair to say none of the five will be there by choice.

Each has asked that they be questioned in secret.

Really.

They have each asked for a secret session so the public can’t hear them talk about the secret destruction of public records and the manipulation of public funding.

It’s their right to make that request under Maine law. But, it is positively, absolutely the wrong move and the committee should override their request.

The GOC began its review of the HMP funding process after former CDC official Sharon Leahy-Lind alleged she was ordered to destroy financial documents by higher-ups so the agency could evade a Sun Journal request for records under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

Leahy-Lind did the right thing, and refused to destroy the documents. Instead, she filed them away in her office but some of the paperwork was destroyed anyway — by someone else.

That is not conjecture. It is a concrete finding contained in Maine’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability’s report on Maine’s Healthy Partnerships’ HY 13 Contracts and Funding.

The documents under scrutiny were used to realign the structure of the HMPs and distribute $4.7 million in funding. When the distributions were announced, questions were immediately raised about the process and the Sun Journal requested access to the documents as part of a report on how the CDC determined funding.

Months later, after Leahy-Lind stepped forward, OPEGA’s review found that records were destroyed, other records were created to replace the missing paperwork, and at least one evaluation was manipulated to award funding to an agency that had been “good” to the CDC.

None of this would have come to light had it not been for Leahy-Lind’s courage.

She will also appear before GOC Friday, and is happy to do so on the record because she believes that a full public airing is the best and only way to restore trust in Maine’s CDC.

When Leahy-Lind first went public, she said “Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and it is my goal to shine light on one area of state government that is broken and causing harm to me, and the people of Maine.”

She has cooperated with law enforcement officials and has been openly willing to answer questions from the GOC.

By contrast, the five public officials under subpoena are not willing to face the public. In fact, their preference is to continue to keep all of this secret.

Secrecy is not going to fix it. Public scrutiny will.

At some point during the past two months, nearly every member of GOC — which seats an equal number of Republicans and Democrats — has said with conviction that the OPEGA review and public discussion of the facts is necessary in order to restore the people’s trust in government.

We agree.

A full airing, in bright light, is the only way for Mainers to see for themselves what happened here, how and why the public’s records were destroyed, who is responsible for that destruction and what is being done to ensure it never, ever happens again.

Holding that conversation in secret will do one thing: It will cement the public’s mistrust and suspicion of government in general, and of the CDC in particular.

When Friday’s meeting convenes, and the public officials under subpoena ask for secrecy, the law requires that their requests be honored unless members of the GOC vote to meet in public.

There is some sense on the committee that if GOC  provides these officials the cover of darkness, that they might be more willing to answer questions. That’s not likely, given their reluctance to this point to provide straight answers to OPEGA during its review and to refuse a voluntary appearance before GOC.

GOC’s mission is to ensure the proper, effective, efficient and economical expenditure of public funds. The committee has always done that in the most public manner possible on every other review it has ever undertaken. This one can be no different.

What is discussed and recorded in secret must then remain secret, which will make it exceedingly difficult for GOC to explain — in public — any recommendations for change if members cannot reveal what was discussed. Right?

It would be preferable to hear these public officials say they’re not going to answer questions in public than to never find out what was discussed in secret.

If GOC permits such secrecy Friday, it will be the same as telling the public there’s something before the committee worth hiding.

That will not repair the public trust. It will detonate it.

Leahy-Lind’s health and career were compromised after her courageous decision to go public, but she had the fortitude to face the public. We implore every member of the GOC to decisively follow her lead and defeat any effort to suppress public scrutiny.

Do the right thing.

There’s been enough secrecy already.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.


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