LEWISTON — Commissioner Mary Mayhew emphatically denied Tuesday that she knew workers at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention planned to destroy public documents. 

“I did not direct, authorize, acknowledge the destruction of any documents,” Mayhew said during a meeting with the Sun Journal editorial board.

However, the deputy director of the CDC has testified before lawmakers that she told Mayhew, who oversees the CDC as head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, about the plan to destroy documents.

“I said to the commissioner, ‘We have a final product; we will not be keeping the previous spreadsheets,'” CDC Deputy Director Christine Zukas told the Government Oversight Committee on March 14 as part of its CDC document-shredding probe.

At issue is a set of spreadsheets and other documents used to decide which nonprofit health organizations in Maine would get more money and greater responsibility under the Healthy Maine Partnerships program in 2012.

Sharon Leahy-Lind, then a CDC division director, alleged in April 2013 that her bosses at the CDC ordered her to shred the documents and retaliated when she refused. She has since filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit against DHHS and the head of the CDC.

A December report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability uncovered a host of problems with the way the CDC handled the grant funding, including supervisors who ordered the destruction of public documents, documents that were created after the fact in response to Sun Journal Freedom of Access Act requests and funding criteria that was changed during the selection process. The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee now is trying to determine why public records were ordered destroyed and what should be done to prevent it from happening again.

Mayhew requested the meeting with the Sun Journal editorial board to discuss DHHS, which includes the CDC. Mayhew said she was frustrated by negative media coverage that centered on problems within DHHS and did not often focus on the department’s successes, including the work it’s doing to get MaineCare patients more comprehensive physical and mental health care and welfare recipients better job training.  

Asked during the meeting about document-shredding, Mayhew twice said she had known nothing about it beforehand.

“I did not direct or authorize anyone to shred any documents,” she said. “Let me be perfectly clear on that. What we talked about is the challenge of knowing (what to keep). If we maintained every single version of every document ever produced in the department, we would be awash.”

When Mayhew did find out about the ordered document destruction, she said, she asked for an internal review by the DHHS Office of Continuous Quality Improvement, then known as the Office of Quality Improvement Services.

She said she agreed with the OPEGA report, which came out eight months after the internal report.

Mayhew also said she is trying to foster a “blameless culture” at DHHS to encourage workers to raise concerns and address problems without fear of blame. 

“So that people can get in a room and say, ‘So what was it about our system that contributed to this error and how do we fix it?'” she said.

However, Mayhew said that “blameless culture” isn’t always possible, which is why she fired the head of Riverview Psychiatric Center, the troubled state-run mental health hospital in Augusta. 

“At some point, you have to also acknowledge when a management change is necessary in order to accomplish broader reforms and improvements in a system,” Mayhew said. “You want to encourage a blameless culture to encourage reporting, to encourage process improvement, but at the end of the day you also have to have appropriate accountability for performance.”

Mayhew declined to say where that accountability might fall within the CDC.

“I’m not prepared to comment on that right now in the midst of a lawsuit,” she said.

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