AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted Friday to request interviews with officials from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention as part of its probe into reports of document shredding, but stopped short of using its subpoena power.
The CDC shredded documents that were used to justify $4.7 million in grant funding to regional health programs, according to a preliminary investigation by the Legislature’s investigative arm.
The attorney for the former CDC official who says she was ordered to shred the documents confirmed Friday that the FBI has interviewed her client about her claims. Sharon Leahy-Lind, a former director of local public health for the CDC, has sued the agency and its director under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.
The Government Oversight Committee, with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, questioned officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC. The questions focused on findings that supervisors ordered staff members to destroy grant documents and “strong indications” that supervisors manipulated the selection criteria for the Healthy Maine Partnerships program.
Before voting 9-2 to request interviews with CDC staff members and officials, lawmakers expressed frustration at gaps and inconsistencies in the information that CDC officials provided to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s nonpartisan investigative arm. The destruction of public documents has complicated the inquiry.
The Government Oversight Committee has subpoena power, but members declined to use it and instead voted to invite CDC employees and officials for further questioning. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the subpoena option remains if CDC officials don’t cooperate or decline to be interviewed.
Katz said the committee doesn’t know whether documents were destroyed because the staff was unaware that they should have been kept for the public record or “someone was trying to cover something up.”
Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said too many questions remain for the committee not to pursue the issue further.
The panel has used subpoena authority in the past, most notably in 2011 during a high-profile investigation into the conduct of the Maine Turnpike Authority and its executive director.
Subpoenas were considered Friday, but lawmakers expressed concern about tainting the reputations of low-level staff members who were involved in the document destruction.
FBI REQUESTED INTERVIEW
The Attorney General’s Office has asked to withdraw as the state’s counsel in Leahy-Lind’s whistleblower case, an uncommon but not unprecedented request, said Paul Stern, chief of the Litigation Division of the Attorney General’s Office.
Kevin Wells, counsel for the DHHS, told the Government Oversight Committee on Friday that it’s his understanding that a federal judge has “prospectively” granted the state’s request.
Linda Pistner, chief deputy attorney general, would not elaborate on her office’s request to withdraw from the case.
Leahy-Lind attended Friday’s meeting of the Government Oversight Committee, along with her attorney, Cynthia Dill.
Leahy-Lind sued in U.S. District Court in October, claiming that she was harassed after she refused to destroy documents related to controversial grant-funding decisions under the Healthy Maine Partnerships program. Named as defendants are the CDC and its director, Sheila Pinette.
Assistant Attorneys General Susan Herman and Ronald Lupton had been representing the state and Pinette in the case. The request for withdrawal, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland on Jan. 17, doesn’t outline any specific reasons.
It says: “Due to a recent and unexpected development, the Office of the Attorney General is unable to continue to represent either the CDC or Pinette in this litigation.”
Asked why Leahy-Lind attended Friday’s meeting, Dill said her client was trying to get as much information to the public as possible. Dill also revealed that Leahy-Lind has been interviewed by the FBI. She said the interview was done at the FBI’s request, not her client’s.
“My client has been, from day one, trying to get as much information into the public domain so that these issues are aired appropriately and the committee and those responsible for investigating have some tools to work with,” Dill said. “She, of course, went initially to her supervisors. She went to the (Equal Employment Opportunity Office). She participated with the Attorney General’s Office when they investigated. She cooperated fully with the OPEGA investigation. She’s spoken to the FBI. She’s cooperated on every level. She has nothing to hide.”
The FBI’s interest in Leahy-Lind’s case is unclear. Special Agent Greg Comcowich, a regional spokesman in Boston, would not comment on any federal involvement, saying the bureau’s standard practice is to neither confirm nor deny any investigation.
AWARD PROCESS REWORKED
The documents that Leahy-Lind claims her supervisor ordered her to destroy are related to the Healthy Maine Partnerships grants, which go to regional districts to fund health programs, including smoking cessation and fitness programs. Healthy Maine Partnerships funds are distributed primarily through the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which derives much of its funding from the federal funds allocated to states through the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement of 1998.
The Fund for a Healthy Maine has had severe budget cuts over the past three years.
The grant program distributed $7.5 million in 2012. The grants were reduced to $4.7 million in 2013 in a supplemental budget enacted by the Legislature.
The decrease prompted the CDC to rework its award process. Since then, questions have surfaced about its grant decisions, some of which slashed awards in more populated regions while increasing funding in rural districts.
The investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability was fast-tracked after Leahy-Lind filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. Earlier this month, she told the Government Oversight Committee that she was told to shred the grant documents after the Lewiston Sun Journal made a public records request.
All six Democrats on the committee voted Friday to interview CDC staff members and officials. Republican Sens. David Burns of Whiting and Richard Youngblood of Penobscot voted against the inquiry. Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, left the meeting shortly before the committee voted.
Katz said the inquiry is consistent with the committee’s duty to ensure public trust in government programs and agencies.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s a Republican governor, or a Democratic governor or an independent governor – the rules are the same,” he said. “This committee was set up with this in mind.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: