Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Millions of dollars in public health grants awarded by the state were done so in a slipshod fashion. That much is clear.
If Maine officials refuse to answer lingering questions about a public health grant controversy on their own, then legislators are justified in using their subpoena power to compel the state employees to appear.
But it is not apparent just why the process at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention – marked by poor record-keeping and shifting criteria, and followed by claims of political manipulation and worker harassment – went so wrong.
That’s why it’s important that the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee speaks directly with the people involved. If the CDC officials refuse to answer the committee’s questions of their own accord, as appears to be the case, the committee should use its subpoena power to compel them to appear, so that lawmakers can settle concerns now almost two years old.
The questions first surfaced in June 2012. Funding for Healthy Maine Partnership grants, which support smoking cessation, fitness and health programs, had been cut. As a result, the way the grants were distributed was reorganized, with a few local groups designated through a competitive process to receive the lion’s share of $4.7 million.
Lewiston-area lawmakers, and the Sun Journal newspaper, took issue with the amount distributed to a group there and requested answers from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC.
The request by the newspaper led CDC officials to order workers to shred documents related to the grant awards process, according to a complaint filed last April by Sharon Leahy-Lind, then a CDC manager.
Leahy-Lind, who claimed she was subjected to a hostile workplace because of her refusal to follow the order, has since resigned and filed a lawsuit against the DHHS, which is pending.
The Government Oversight Committee, as a result of those allegations, asked the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to investigate how the Healthy Maine Partnership funds were distributed and whether the process was documented properly.
That report, released in December, found “strong indications” that the criteria used to determine which groups would get the most money shifted during the selection process. In at least one case, a change in criteria pushed one group ahead of another, suggesting the scoring may have been manipulated.
But the watchdog agency was unable to determine the extent of the wrongdoing because the CDC had written over or destroyed the documentation of all but the final part of the process. As a result, it is difficult to tell how the grant awards were justified.
So, were the mistakes on the scoring process the result of the rush to reorganize the program, or was it set up to award certain groups? Were the public documents destroyed because of a misunderstanding, or were employees pressured to cover up a flawed scoring?
Those are the questions that need to be answered, for the sake of good government. And if the CDC officials won’t appear before the oversight committee voluntarily, then the committee should issue subpoenas to compel their cooperation.