AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday to subpoena five officials of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention – including Director Sheila Pinette – who refused to voluntarily answer questions about reported shredding of public documents.
Meanwhile, a second person who has worked in the CDC joined a pending federal lawsuit against the agency, citing a vindictive work atmosphere.
A former director of the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health, Sharon Leahy-Lind, was the first to sue the agency, saying her boss, Christine Zukas, had told her to shred documents related to $4.7 million in Healthy Maine Partnerships grant awards. The documents had been requested by the Lewiston Sun Journal as the newspaper sought to learn how the money had been allocated.
In her lawsuit, Leahy-Lind claims that she was retaliated against for refusing to shred the documents. She eventually left her job, citing harassment for making the issue public, and has sought protection under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.
Leahy-Lind has appeared before the Government Oversight Committee voluntarily, but she also will receive a subpoena, as an apparent formality under the motion approved Friday.
The others who will receive subpoenas are: Pinette; Zukas, the deputy director; Debra A. Wigand, the CDC’s director of public health; Andrew Finch, senior program manager for Healthy Maine Partnerships; and Lisa Sockabasin, director of the Office of Health Equity.
All five officials have refused to appear before the committee voluntarily to answer questions about any destruction of records related to the allocation of public health grants. They will be compelled to appear before the committee on March 14.
Officials said the move to force testimony before the legislative committee is unusual, although not unprecedented. It happened in 2011, in an investigation into the Maine Turnpike Authority and its executive director.
‘THE REIGN OF TERROR’
In Leahy-Lind’s whistleblower lawsuit, Zukas and Sockabasin were added as defendants Friday, joining Pinette and the CDC itself. And Katie Woodbury, who has worked as office manager in the CDC, joined Leahy-Lind as a plaintiff.
Court documents filed Friday indicate that Woodbury shared Leahy-Lind’s concerns about a vindictive atmosphere in the CDC.
“They are referred to as the Third Reich. The reign of terror,” Woodbury said in the court documents.
Last year, the Legislature’s investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, found evidence of orders to shred documents and “strong indications” that supervisors manipulated selection criteria for the grants in the Healthy Maine Partnerships program.
In late January, Government 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.
While the committee voted unanimously Friday to issue subpoenas, some Republicans questioned whether ordering the officials to appear would be effective. The committee’s Republicans conferred among themselves for about 15 minutes before voting in favor of the subpoenas along with the Democratic members. The investigative committee has six Republicans and six Democrats.
Rep. Paul Davis Sr., R-Sangerville, said he expects the committee will glean little information from the CDC officials, who will likely invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to give testimony that could be self-incriminating.
“I can’t imagine any attorney advising his client to testify on something that’s pending,” Davis said.
But Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta disagreed with his fellow Republicans, saying he expects most of the committee’s questions will be answered.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Katz said. “We have a public interest in getting to the bottom of this.”
Emily Cain, D-Orono, the committee’s Senate chair, said the scope of the questions would be narrower than in a civil trial.
“We’re not trying to try the civil suit. That’s not our cause or interest,” Cain said. “It’s very clear something went wrong. We’re trying to determine what went wrong to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Cain said she doesn’t believe that those who testify will have grounds to invoke their Fifth Amendment right, because no criminal charges are pending.
The FBI has interviewed Leahy-Lind, according to her attorney, Cynthia Dill, but spokesmen for the FBI have said they cannot confirm or deny reports that it is investigating.
DHHS ATTORNEY WEIGHS IN
If the CDC officials do not invoke their Fifth Amendment right but still refuse to testify, the committee’s co-chairs, Cain or Democratic Rep. Chuck Kruger, could order them to answer questions, said Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
Such an order could be overruled by a majority vote of the committee, she said.
Ashcroft said she expects the government employees will answer questions.
When the committee invited the officials last month to testify voluntarily, Department of Health and Human Services attorney Kevin Wells advised them that they would not be authorized to represent the CDC at the hearing.
“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,” Wells wrote earlier this month.
Kruger and other committee members said the officials probably felt pressured by the letter not to appear before the oversight committee, and the subpoenas will give them protection from any fears of retaliation for testifying.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: