AUGUSTA — Officials in the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention have refused lawmakers’ request to appear at a committee meeting on the shredding of public documents related to the agency’s awards of public health grants last year.
All five officials who were asked to testify before the Government Oversight Committee, including CDC Director Sheila Pinette, have notified the committee that they will not attend Friday’s meeting. The committee now must consider whether to subpoena the officials, in a case that has drawn scrutiny from the state Attorney General’s Office and triggered a whistleblower lawsuit.
The court case was initiated by Sharon Leahy-Lind, former director of the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health, who alleges that her supervisor, Deputy Director Christine Zukas, told her to shred documents related to $4.7 million in Healthy Maine Partnerships grant awards.
Leahy-Lind says Zukas told her to do so after the Sun Journal newspaper in Lewiston requested the documents through the Freedom of Access Act. Leahy-Lind claims she was harassed and discriminated against for not complying with the directive by Zukas. She eventually left her job, citing harassment for making the issue public.
Leahy-Lind has been asked to attend Friday’s committee meeting. According to Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, Leahy-Lind has agreed to attend but her former colleagues have not.
“The consistent word we’ve received is that the (Department of Health and Human Services) attorney advised the people who received invitations that they could not appear on behalf of the department,” said Cain, a member of the committee.
“I’m concerned about that because this is not a public hearing where they would be choosing to come to weigh in on a bill,” Cain said. “These people have been specifically requested because of their roles inside the department. It’s concerning to me because the department’s email, in my opinion, implies attending the meeting would somehow be in conflict with their work.”
Kevin Wells, chief legal counsel for the DHHS, which oversees the CDC, provided the Portland Press Herald with a copy of his email message to the officials who were invited to the meeting.
It reads: “If you choose to attend this meeting then please be advised that you are NOT authorized to speak for or otherwise represent the Department of Health and Human Services or Center for Disease Control and Prevention in any capacity and that your attendance would ONLY be in your personal capacity. As the department understands the letter, it is only an invitation to attend and does not compel you to attend the meeting. Whether you decide to attend the meeting is up to you. Please be advised, however, that the department is aware that the GOC may consider issuing a subpoena to compel your attendance if you choose not to attend the meeting.”
Cain said the committee will have to decide its next step.
Wells’ email also refers to statements by Leahy-Lind and her attorney, Cynthia Dill, that she has been interviewed by the FBI about her claims.
“Please also be advised that the department is also aware of public statements, by the attorney for the plaintiff in the lawsuit pending in federal court, to the effect that the FBI has interviewed the plaintiff regarding matters that may be discussed at the GOC meeting,” Wells wrote. “Finally, please note that you have the right to consult with your own attorney regarding whether you should attend the GOC meeting and that you may wish to do so.”
Special Agent Greg Comcowich, a regional FBI spokesman in Boston, told the Press Herald last month that he would not comment on any federal involvement in the case.
Healthy Maine Partnerships grants are distributed by region to fund health programs, including smoking cessation and fitness. They are distributed primarily through the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which gets much of its money from federal allocations under the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement of 1998.
SEVERE BUDGET CUTS
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 Government Oversight Committee has been trying to piece together the grant award process and Leahy-Lind’s account since she made her allegations public.
Last year, the Legislature’s investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, found evidence that documents were ordered shredded and “strong indications” that supervisors manipulated selection criteria for the grants in the Healthy Maine Partnerships program.
In late January, oversight committee members said they were frustrated with gaps in that review, many of which stemmed from missing documents and inconsistent stories from CDC officials.
The panel voted 9-2 to request interviews with officials who may have knowledge of the grant process and document destruction order. The panel stopped short of using its subpoena power, but some members indicated that it remained an option if officials did not accept the invitation to Friday’s meeting.
As of Monday, all five officials had declined the request: Pinette, the director; Debra A. Wigand, the CDC’s director of public health; Andrew Finch, senior program manager for Healthy Maine Partnerships; Zukas, the deputy director; and Lisa Sockabasin, director of the Office of Health Equity.
LEGAL CASE A COMPLICATION
Pinette is a defendant in the whistleblower case. She received legal representation recently from Graydon Stevens, a Portland lawyer who specializes in employment law. The DHHS, also a defendant in the case, has hired Jonathan Shapiro and Eric Uhl, lawyers with Fisher and Phillips, a national employment law firm.
The defense attorneys were assigned after two lawyers in the Attorney General’s Office who were defending the CDC asked to withdraw from the case, citing an unexpected development.
The specific reason for the withdrawal is confidential. It has raised questions about whether criminal charges are forthcoming or whether there was a breach in the firewall between attorneys defending the CDC and attorneys weighing prosecution.
The Government Oversight Committee’s review is running parallel to the court case.
While some members have expressed concern that a review could complicate the legal proceedings, others have said the committee must deepen its probe to ensure public confidence in the CDC and the grant award process.
The issue has since become increasingly political. The Maine Democratic Party announced recently that it had filed a Freedom of Access Act request with the LePage administration seeking any correspondence related to the shredding order.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage has repeatedly declined to comment on the CDC case.
So far, partisanship has not affected the Government Oversight Committee, which has six Democrats and six Republicans. In January, three Republicans joined the Democrats in voting to continue the probe and question the CDC 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.
Burns and Youngblood said the CDC matter doesn’t warrant the additional scrutiny that the committee has given to other cases, including a 2011 review of operations at the Maine Turnpike Authority. That review led to the imprisonment of Paul Violette, the former executive director, for stealing as much as $230,000 from the authority for his personal use.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: