By Steve Mistler
Supervisors in the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention ordered staff members to destroy documents that helped justify $4.7 million in funding allocations for regional health programs, according to an investigation by the Legislature’s watchdog agency.
The report released Thursday by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability dismayed lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee. Their concerns centered on several findings, including evidence that documents were shredded and “strong indications” that supervisors manipulated the selection criteria to allow the Penquis health district to receive a grant of more than $600,000.
The grants go to regional districts to fund health programs, including smoking cessation and fitness programs that often are used and praised by employers and health advocates. The Healthy Maine Partnerships funds are distributed primarily through the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which 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 through a supplemental budget enacted by the previous Legislature.
The decrease prompted the state 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.
An investigation into the grant process was fast-tracked after a whistleblower in the CDC filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission.
Sharon Leahy-Lind, former director of the agency’s Division of Local Public Health, alleged that her supervisor, Deputy Director Christine Zukas, told her to shred documents related to the competitive awards to health outreach nonprofits. Leahy-Lind claimed that she was harassed and discriminated against for not complying with the directive.
The report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability does not identify who ordered the shredding of the documents.
Leahy-Lind resigned in July, saying through her attorney, former state lawmaker Cynthia Dill, that the harassment continued and that she was denied use of an office phone and treated like a “pariah.”
The Attorney General’s Office is also investigating the document-shredding claim, said Beth Ashcroft, director of the government accountability office. The office will open a public comment period and, if directed by the Government Oversight Committee, may investigate further.
Under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, it is a Class D crime to willfully destroy or remove public documents possessed by a state entity.
MANIPULATION OF GRANT SUSPECTED
During the investigation, unnamed officials in the CDC told investigators they believed that the destroyed documents were “working papers,” rather than final documents, so they were not public records.
According to the investigation, Leahy-Lind isn’t the only employee who claimed that bosses in the CDC ordered the shredding of grant documents. “There are strong indications, including accounts from multiple interviewees, that such intentional manipulation may have occurred in the selection of the lead for the Penquis district,” the report says.
The Penquis health district includes two nonprofits, one in the Bangor area and one in Piscataquis County. The Bangor nonprofit received a grant of $309,607, a $127,000 decrease from 2012.
Previously, grants were determined by a formula based on population and a rural or urban classification. In 2013, the CDC determined a base funding amount of $120,000 for each nonprofit and used new grading criteria.
However, the watchdog agency found that the criteria were subjective, undocumented and inconsistent. In some instances the process was changed on the fly. All of those flaws “undermined the integrity and credibility of the results,” the report says.
The report also says that the contract for the Wabanaki tribal district was handled differently from the contracts for other districts. It says the tribal district’s contract for nearly $600,000 was a no-bid contract and was developed outside the parameters used by other coalitions.
The same tribal district received $370,000 in 2012. The district was one of four to receive increases in 2013 after the budget cuts for the Fund for a Healthy Maine.
DOCUMENTS TO JUSTIFY GRANTS GONE
Overall, the investigators found that the grant process was severely flawed, unorganized and subject to manipulation.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, blamed the LePage administration in a written statement. Craven represents part of the Western Maine health district, where the Healthy Androscoggin nonprofit took a 65 percent reduction in grant funding, which may lead to the elimination of some health programs.
“This level of mismanagement of public dollars is becoming the status quo under this administration,” Craven said. “Changing numbers to manipulate specific outcomes is dishonest.”
Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee, said the findings are “extremely disappointing” and it is “extraordinarily frustrating” that many of the documents to justify the grant decisions no longer exist.
In a memo appended to the report, Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, gave a written explanation for the grant process. She wrote that officials had to modify the process after the funding cut was approved by the Legislature and LePage.
The report notes that the CDC was well aware of the funding cut, but Mayhew wrote that “the specific funding level couldn’t be known until the budget was finalized.” She wrote, “This left the CDC a very short time to develop a plan of action for appropriate reduction of funds.”
With regard to findings that CDC officials ordered staff members to destroy public documents, Mayhew wrote that the DHHS legal team is working with the Maine State Archives to “review and update our records management policies and practices.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: