Wednesday, March 12, 2014
AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted Friday to request interviews with officials from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention as part of its probe into reports of document shredding, but stopped short of using its subpoena power.
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Friday questions officials from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services as part of a probe into a report that found that the state’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention shredded documents used to justify $4.7 million in grant funding to regional health programs.
Steve Mistler / Staff Writer
The CDC shredded documents that were used to justify $4.7 million in grant funding to regional health programs, according to a preliminary investigation by the Legislature’s investigative arm.
The attorney for the former CDC official who says she was ordered to shred the documents confirmed Friday that the FBI has interviewed her client about her claims. Sharon Leahy-Lind, a former director of local public health for the CDC, has sued the agency and its director under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.
The Government Oversight Committee, with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, questioned officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC. The questions focused on findings that supervisors ordered staff members to destroy grant documents and “strong indications” that supervisors manipulated the selection criteria for the Healthy Maine Partnerships program.
Before voting 9-2 to request interviews with CDC staff members and officials, lawmakers expressed frustration at gaps and inconsistencies in the information that CDC officials provided to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s nonpartisan investigative arm. The destruction of public documents has complicated the inquiry.
The Government Oversight Committee has subpoena power, but members declined to use it and instead voted to invite CDC employees and officials for further questioning. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the subpoena option remains if CDC officials don’t cooperate or decline to be interviewed.
Katz said the committee doesn’t know whether documents were destroyed because the staff was unaware that they should have been kept for the public record or “someone was trying to cover something up.”
Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said too many questions remain for the committee not to pursue the issue further.
The panel has used subpoena authority in the past, most notably in 2011 during a high-profile investigation into the conduct of the Maine Turnpike Authority and its executive director.
Subpoenas were considered Friday, but lawmakers expressed concern about tainting the reputations of low-level staff members who were involved in the document destruction.
FBI REQUESTED INTERVIEW
The Attorney General’s Office has asked to withdraw as the state’s counsel in Leahy-Lind’s whistleblower case, an uncommon but not unprecedented request, said Paul Stern, chief of the Litigation Division of the Attorney General’s Office.
Kevin Wells, counsel for the DHHS, told the Government Oversight Committee on Friday that it’s his understanding that a federal judge has “prospectively” granted the state’s request.
Linda Pistner, chief deputy attorney general, would not elaborate on her office’s request to withdraw from the case.
Leahy-Lind attended Friday’s meeting of the Government Oversight Committee, along with her attorney, Cynthia Dill.
Leahy-Lind sued in U.S. District Court in October, claiming that she was harassed after she refused to destroy documents related to controversial grant-funding decisions under the Healthy Maine Partnerships program. Named as defendants are the CDC and its director, Sheila Pinette.
Assistant Attorneys General Susan Herman and Ronald Lupton had been representing the state and Pinette in the case. The request for withdrawal, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland on Jan. 17, doesn’t outline any specific reasons.
It says: “Due to a recent and unexpected development, the Office of the Attorney General is unable to continue to represent either the CDC or Pinette in this litigation.”
Asked why Leahy-Lind attended Friday’s meeting, Dill said her client was trying to get as much information to the public as possible. Dill also revealed that Leahy-Lind has been interviewed by the FBI. She said the interview was done at the FBI’s request, not her client’s.
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