AUGUSTA — The state agency that’s investigating allegations that officials in the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention destroyed public documents is reviewing contradictions and revelations in the sworn testimony of six current and former CDC employees.
The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability also is considering reviewing the work culture in the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC. The review would be a response to numerous complaints about management’s behavior and treatment of employees.
Lawmakers are considering steps to address allegations of intimidation, verbal abuse and the manipulation of scoring criteria used by the CDC to distribute $4.7 million in grants through the Healthy Maine Partnerships program.
Lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee, which works with the accountability office, met Friday to discuss the next steps in their investigation. The panel took sworn testimony this month from five current CDC officials, including Director Sheila Pinette and her immediate subordinates.
Also testifying was Sharon Leahy-Lind, a former director of the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health and a plaintiff in a whistleblower lawsuit against Pinette, Lisa Sockabasin, director of the Office of Health Equity, and Christine Zukas, the agency’s deputy director.
The testimony was marked by several contradictions.
Pinette and Sockabasin denied ordering the shredding of documents or changes to the scoring methodology for the health grants, but both said they knew that such actions had occurred and they did nothing to stop them.
Zukas, who admitted to giving the order for the shredding and destroying documents herself, implicated Pinette in the scoring changes, saying it was done at her request.
Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, told lawmakers Friday that her staff is comparing the sworn statements to those made by the same people during the office’s investigation last year. She said there are several contradictions and new information. She also questioned the explanations of those who testified.
“Some of the explanations for some of the things that were done make you ask, ‘Does that make sense?’ ” she said.
Ashcroft did not identify any of the CDC officials in her remarks. She indicated that an overview of the findings will be available next week.
The committee, meanwhile, wrestled with its next steps.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, suggested that the panel already knows that inappropriate action was taken but it may never know by whom because of the conflicting accounts by the officials involved.
Some committee members wanted to dig deeper, suggesting that they may want to hear from DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
Meanwhile, the committee is considering a cultural review of the DHHS, which could entail the hiring of a consultant. Ashcroft said there are consultants who review private companies to detect systemic and workplace issues that contribute to low morale, employee turnover and inefficiency.
COMPLAINTS FROM DHHS WORKERS
Lawmakers and Ashcroft’s office have received complaints of poor treatment of employees by management.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said she had gotten complaints from CDC employees.
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, said he had received complaints from employees throughout the DHHS. He said employees complained of a negative work atmosphere and “a strong feeling that you best not complain about it.”
In the whistleblower lawsuit, Leahy-Lind and another plaintiff, Katie Woodbury, described an atmosphere of intimidation and employees who fear reprisals by management.
Woodbury, in her motion to join the lawsuit filed by Leahy-Lind, said Zukas and Sockabasin are “referred to as the Third Reich. The reign of terror. And that is how they operate.”
The testimony taken by the Government Oversight Committee was not connected to the court case. However, attorneys for the CDC officials and the DHHS tried to prevent the testimony, warning that statements could affect the case.
The oversight committee will meet in two weeks to determine its next steps in the probe.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: