Wednesday, December 11, 2013
AUGUSTA — A division director at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has filed a discrimination claim with the Maine Human Rights Commission, alleging that senior managers assaulted and harassed her after she refused an order to shred public records.
Sharon Leahy-Lind of Portland, director of the CDC's Division of Local Public Health, alleges in the complaint that her supervisor, CDC Deputy Director Christine Zukas, told her last spring to shred documents related to the competitive awards of funding to health outreach nonprofits under the Healthy Maine Partnership. She did not comply, believing it would be illegal.
The Sun Journal newspaper in Lewiston subsequently requested copies of the documents, which is when Zukas discovered that they hadn't been shredded, according to the complaint.
"When she found out I hadn't shredded the documents she physically assaulted me and ordered me to take the documents to my home and destroy and dispose of them there," Leahy-Lind wrote in her complaint, filed Tuesday. She says she again refused, instead keeping the records in her office.
According to the complaint, the records showed the scoring results for funding awards under the program. The Sun Journal said the scoring resulted in a dramatic decrease in funding for Healthy Androscoggin, a nonprofit in Lewiston, and a sharp increase for a smaller organization, Rumford-based Healthy River Valley.
State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, told the Sun Journal last year that she thought the funding decisions were politically motivated, as Lewiston-Auburn's legislative delegation had been highly critical of Gov. Paul LePage.
Leahy-Lind says in her complaint that the records she was told to shred showed that "what was described as an 'objective' test was in fact manipulated so certain (nonprofits) would be favored over others."
The complaint says the director of the CDC's Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, Lisa Sockabasin, told Leahy-Lind to "shut my (expletive) mouth" and "not to mention the favorable treatment given to the Tribal Healthy Maine Partnerships, or face adverse employment consequences."
"I was physically and verbally assaulted repeatedly," Leahy-Lind says. "The (deputy director) often raised her voice and screamed while grabbing my arm or kicking me under the table. Her behavior was extremely aggressive and hostile."
CDC spokesman John Martins said Wednesday that Zukas would not comment, and Sockabasin was traveling and could not be reached. Martins said the agency doesn't comment on personnel situations.
He said that the scoring process for Healthy Maine Partnership awards had several rounds with varying criteria, and that a nonprofit could move up or down the list from round to round. "The Healthy Androscoggin Partnership was never scored at the top, I can say," he said.
He would not say whether political factors played a role.
The Human Rights Commission isn't allowed to confirm whether a complaint has been filed until it is dismissed or listed on the commissioner's agenda, said commission counsel John P. Gause.
When a complaint is received, the accused typically responds within 30 days and the complainant then submits a written reply. If the commission takes no action within 180 days, complainants are free to pursue full legal remedy in court, he said.
In her complaint, Leahy-Lind did not identify Sockabasin or Zukas by name, only by their titles, but her attorney, Cynthia Dill, confirmed to the Portland Press Herald that they are the individuals in question. She said Leahy-Lind would not speak to a reporter.
In the complaint, Leahy-Lind also alleges that she was "ordered to repeatedly discipline a minority employee who was targeted by (Zukas) and (Sockabasin)," and threatened with termination if she did not do so.
She said she believed she "was being used by them to carry out unlawful discrimination against a minority."
She claimed that in November, after Zukas was "screaming at me on the phone," she got "so upset I had trouble breathing and had to seek medical attention." Her doctor recommended she take time off to regain her health, and she went on family medical leave that ended March 25.
Before doing so, she met with the state Equal Employment Opportunity coordinator, Laurel Shippee, to report what had happened. She said that instead of investigating her harassment complaints, Shippee "interviewed employees about my management performance" and then filed a "confidential" report with CDC Director Sheila Pinette.
"As far as we know, her allegations were not investigated, but instead we believe they began an investigation on her," said Dill, a 2012 U.S. Senate candidate who is now an attorney with Troubh Heisler in Portland.
Shippee did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Leahy-Lind also alleges that when she announced her full recovery and her intention to return to work, she was told she would be given a lesser position in Rockland. On March 28, she says, she was instead put on administrative leave and told that the CDC had "probable cause" to investigate her for allegedly sharing "inappropriate and/or untruthful information with supervisors, subordinates, and/or peers to include, but not limited to, confidential information from senior management discussions."
"This is blatant retaliation in my point of view," said Dill, who said Leahy-Lind's personnel file indicates she was an exemplary employee. "It's not typical that you have such blatant abuse of process and power."
Craven, the state senator from Lewiston, said she remains concerned about the disposition of the records.
"This is public money, so the public has a right to know how it is spent," she said in a written statement Wednesday. "We need more information about these allegations, and I hope they will be fully investigated."
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: