The “CDC” acronym can stay, but the name needs to change: Henceforth, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention should be rechristened the “Maine Center for Damage Control.”
The new moniker would better reflect the agency’s real focus as its months-old document-shredding scandal winds its way from a pending lawsuit in federal court to a hearing before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.
To wit: In the wake of a report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability detailing serious (if not criminal) skulduggery by top CDC officials in doling out $4.7 million in Healthy Maine Partnerships grants in 2012, the bipartisan committee hopes to have a chat Friday morning with CDC Director Sheila Pinette and four of her underlings.
The “CDC Five” all were subpoenaed to appear before lawmakers after refusing (on advice of their attorneys) to do so voluntarily. Three of them also are named as defendants in a whistleblower lawsuit against the Maine Department of Health and Human Services by former CDC program director Sharon Leahy-Lind and office manager Katie Woodbury.
The problem is, the five officials (again, those lawyers) now want their testimony to remain secret. No pesky reporters, no prying TV cameras, no public involvement whatsoever.
Can we say “unprecedented?” Yes, we can – never before has the oversight committee granted such a request.
How about “not in the public interest?” That too – anything the witnesses tell the lawmakers would, by law, have to be kept secret.
So why do it? Good question.
“I can understand why the lawyers don’t want it in public. If I were representing one of these people, I would feel exactly the same way – and for legitimate reasons,” said Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, himself an attorney and one of six Republicans on the 12-member oversight committee.
That said, Katz added, “there’s a real public policy interest in making sure that the public’s business is done in a transparent way and is done in the light of day.”
Amen to that, senator. If ever there was a story that needs to see the light of day from start to finish, it’s this one.
The independent report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, delivered to the Government Oversight Committee in December, doesn’t name names. Still, its findings reveal a clearly flawed grant-award procedure in which fairness went right out the window and a critical document – a scoring sheet before it underwent a few “final adjustments” – mysteriously went missing.
“Multiple problems with the process undermined the integrity and credibility of the results and created an opportunity for MCDC to intentionally manipulate the (grant awards),” the report concludes.
But as worrisome as those findings were, the whistleblowers’ complaint reveals a train wreck in progress.
Plaintiff Woodbury, who joined the lawsuit late last month, claims that rank-and-filers in the CDC refer to defendants Christine Zukas, the CDC’s deputy director, and Lisa Sockabasin, the CDC’s director of the Office of Health Equity, “as the Third Reich. The reign of terror. And that is how they operate.”
“If you do not agree with Chris Zukas, she’s got a hair trigger and she’ll rip you up,” Woodbury alleges in the complaint. “I’m a person that can take that, but I won’t. Some of this stuff that’s going on in the workplace is abuse. Blatant abuse.”
This follows Leahy-Lind’s initial complaint, in which she says she was ordered (and refused) to take sensitive documents home and shred them after they were requested by the Lewiston Sun Journal under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
Leahy-Lind also alleges that Sockabasin once told her to “shut your (expletive) mouth” after she raised questions about “what appeared to be favorable treatment” for the Tribal Healthy Maine Partnerships.
Zukas, claimed Leahy-Lind, “often raised her voice and screamed, while grabbing (Leahy-Lind’s) arm or kicking her under the table.”
Little wonder that the Government Oversight Committee wants to, ahem, engage in a little Q&A with these people.
Nor is it a shocker, now that the CDC’s dirty laundry is hanging for all to see in the court of public opinion, that the attorneys representing the agency’s higher-ups see nothing to be gained (and a lot to be lost) by creating one public record in the State House and another when the lawsuit goes to trial in U.S. District Court.
As defense lawyers Jonathan Shapiro and Eric Uhl noted in their letter to the committee, Maine law says that “if any witness so requests, that witness’s testimony must be taken in executive session …”
Funny how they left off the phrase that follows that ellipsis. It reads, “ … unless otherwise decided by investigating committee action.”
In other words, the lawmakers face an important decision Friday morning.
They can vote to meet privately, ask their questions out of our earshot and find themselves prohibited by statute from publicly revealing what the CDC Five tell them.
Or they can keep the doors open and the shades up, make their queries in public and listen to the endless, “On advice of counsel, I respectfully invoke my Fifth Amendment right and decline to answer …”
For Emily Cain, D-Orono, the committee’s Senate chair, it’s a no-brainer.
“This is about getting to the bottom of things, getting to the truth,” said Cain in an interview Thursday. “Any reasonable person looking at this would agree this should be a conversation we can have in public.”
Besides, Cain speculated, retreating behind closed doors to get the “inside story” on the CDC’s shenanigans would not be without its irony.
What would happen, after all, if the committee went into executive session, got the answers it was looking for and, based solely on those answers, took whatever remedial action it deemed necessary?
“Then you’d have to somehow come to a conclusion,” noted Cain, “without being able to explain how you came to it.”
Sound familiar, Maine CDC?
It’s where good government dissolves into damage control.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: