After months of cloudiness, the sun broke bright and clear over Maine Friday.

And, no, we are not talking about the weather.

In a small hearing room in Augusta, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee put five state employees under oath in a potential case of political favoritism and document destruction.

In other words, there was sunshine aplenty.

Whistle-blower Sharon Leahy-Lind has accused Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials of rigging performance rankings in order to re-direct federal money to a Bangor-based health agency, and then ordering her to destroy the evidence.

When the Legislature reduced funding in 2012 to all of the state’s HMPs — Healthy Maine Partnerships — the CDC needed to quickly redistribute millions of dollars of money.

It came up with a ranking process to decide upon nine lead agencies that would then subcontract work to 18 other agencies.

Employees within the department came up with a system of scoring and ranking each agency by various criteria.

When the scoring was complete, agency officials were surprised that Bangor Region Public Health and Wellness had not won the right to be lead agency in that area.

The officials determined this was a political problem and embarrassment because Shawn Yardley, at that time Bangor’s director of Health and Community Services and co-chair of a statewide health agency board with the CDC’s director, in effect headed that agency.

It had been nudged out by another agency by a single point. The employees saw this as a problem, and set up a meeting with CDC Director Sheila Pinette.

Friday, Pinette testified what surprised her most about the ranking results was that Healthy Androscoggin, based in Lewiston, had also been eliminated as a lead agency.

But the talk in the room full of CDC officials that day turned instead to making sure Bangor became a lead HMP.

In order to rejigger the results, CDC officials decided to create a vague, new criteria called “support and promotion of developing infrastructure” and to give it double weight.

As it turned out, the new criteria was more like “how much we like this agency.” It was completely subjective.

After putting their thumbs on the scale, CDC officials got the desired result: The Bangor agency won handily and would receive more money and leadership status.

CDC Deputy Director Christine Zukas then began either “asking” or “ordering,” depending upon whom you believe, workers to destroy all the previous documents showing the original rating results.

This is when two employees, Leahy-Lind and Andrew Finch, began getting cold feet. They thought this was a very unusual request, and that it might involve breaking the state’s document retention rules and freedom of information laws.

Finch simply saved electronic copies, while Leahy-Lind told her bosses she wouldn’t destroy the documents. This refusal, she says, ultimately resulted in unbearable harassment from her supervisors, which caused her to eventually leave state employment.

She has since filed a Human Rights Commission complaint and a civil suit against the state and her supervisors.

Three important points were clearly established at Friday’s hearing.

First, there is now no doubt that CDC officials changed the results to benefit a friend and colleague in Bangor.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, compared that to changing the scoring rules of football after the game ends just to produce a different winner.

Second, four out of five of these state administrators claimed to have received no training in document retention and could see no reason for establishing a paper trail to justify or explain their decisions.

This is extremely hard to believe. But, if true, it points up an urgent need for training, starting at the top of the state’s bureaucracy.

Finally, four of the five state employees appearing before the committee had asked that the hearing be conducted in secret executive session, which is their right to request.

But it is up to the members of the committee to decide.

Three Republicans on the committee voted for the closed-door session, fearing the employees would not be forthcoming.

Fortunately, the Democrats and one Republican, Katz, voted for the open session, pointing out how suspicious it would look for the Legislature to investigate secret document destruction in secret.

As a result, the public was allowed to attend, watch the hearing on TV or read accounts of it in the state’s newspapers.

That’s a good lesson for all levels of government.

The integrity of our democratic institutions depends upon the free flow of government information and the transparency of government proceedings.

We got sunshine on Friday, and it felt good.

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


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