Maine CDC official alleges she was assaulted after refusing to destroy public documents

Posted April 03, 2013, at 5:57 a.m.
Last modified April 03, 2013, at 7:35 a.m.

A Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director has sent a complaint of discrimination to the Maine Human Rights Commission alleging, among other things, that her bosses ordered her to shred public records to prevent the Sun Journal and the public from seeing them — and assaulted and harassed her when she refused.

The documents, she said, showed the scoring results for the 27 Healthy Maine Partnerships at the center of last summer’s controversy over state funding.

“What was described as an ‘objective’ test was in fact manipulated so certain (Healthy Maine Partnerships) were favored over others,” Sharon Leahy-Lind, director of the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health, said in her complaint.

Leahy-Lind said Tuesday through her lawyer that the scoring results posted on the CDC’s website differ from the scoring results she was told to destroy.

“One of the documents that my client was ordered to shred was different than the final, ‘clean’ so-called version that was posted to the website,” said Leahy-Lind’s lawyer, Cynthia Dill. “Some of the scores were different.”

Those scores determined which organization got hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding. Healthy Androscoggin in Lewiston, for example, scored surprisingly low last summer and lost $163,000, more than half of its state funding. River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition in Rumford scored surprisingly high. It was designated a lead agency based on that score and was expected to get about $129,000 more in state money, an 84 percent increase in annual state funding.

Leahy-Lind has worked for the CDC since 2002 and has served as director of the Division of Local Public Health since January 2012. In her complaint to the Maine Human Rights Commission, she said the CDC’s deputy director told her to shred documents connected to funding for the Healthy Maine Partnerships program before the Sun Journal made a Freedom of Access Act request for the records. Leahy-Lind said she didn’t destroy the documents because that would have been illegal.

When the Sun Journal made the Freedom of Access Act request, Leahy-Lind said the deputy director learned that she hadn’t destroyed the documents and “physically assaulted me and ordered me to take the documents to my home and destroy and dispose of them there.” She said she again refused and instead stored the records in files at her office.

After that, Leahy-Lind said, the deputy director and the director of the Office of Minority Health/Office of Health Equity retaliated and discriminated against her, creating a work environment so hostile that she had trouble breathing and took a medical leave.

Leahy-Lind said she was told at one point “to ‘shut my f’ing mouth’ by the (director of the Office of Minority Health) and not to mention the favorable treatment given to the Tribal Healthy Maine Partnerships, or face adverse employment consequences.”

At another point, she said, the same director called her “a stupid-ass goody-two-shoes.”

Leahy-Lind said she was repeatedly physically and verbally assaulted.

“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,” Leahy-Lind said in her complaint.

The CDC’s deputy director is Christine Zukas and the director of the Office of Minority Health is Lisa Sockabasin. Although Leahy-Lind did not give their names in her complaint, both women have held those positions since 2006 and were there during the time outlined in the complaint.

CDC spokesman John Martins said the department does not comment on impending legal action and he could not comment on Leahy-Lind’s complaint of discrimination. However, in regard to her assertion Tuesday that scoring results on the CDC’s website differed from those she saw and was told to destroy, he said different working documents were circulated during the scoring process and scores may have differed from one draft to the next. But, he said, scores never changed so significantly that an organization jumped to the head of the line for greater funding and lead-agency status.

Leahy-Lind said she did not take the documents with her when she went on medical leave. In February, she said, she requested copies of specific public documents and files. She received some paperwork, but said the documents she was told to shred were missing.

Dill said she has asked for those documents again.

Healthy Maine Partnerships organizations receive state funding to provide community-based health programs, including smoking cessation, fitness and nutrition education programs. The CDC changed funding for those organizations last summer, saying it had to streamline administration and save money.

But the change came with little notice, public input or explanation. And there seemed to be oddities. Rumford’s little River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition was named to lead the entire tri-county western region, while funding for the more robust and active Healthy Androscoggin was cut in half.

The Sun Journal asked the CDC to show how it had scored each organization. State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, and State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, made similar requests.

“I felt it was very important for the state of Maine to be able to demonstrate to the public that the assessments they were using were, in fact, valid, so people could have confidence that the government was evaluating programs in a fair way,” Rotundo said. “It was also about wanting to make sure the public could have confidence in the work (the Department of Health and Human Services) was doing.”

The CDC initially said it could fulfill the requests, but it charged $500 to pull the data. It later agreed to waive that fee.

But while the CDC provided some information, both Craven and Rotundo said they weren’t happy with the documents or the explanations given about funding. Craven said she never got the information she requested.

The pair met with CDC and DHHS officials to talk about the issue about a month ago.

“A lot of the concern had to do with the subjectivity of it,” Rotundo said. “After a fair amount of conversation, there was an acknowledgement on their part that there were areas where it could have been strengthened. At the very end, however, the commissioner did say we were just going to have to agree to disagree, that she stood by the work that they had done. And stood by the assessment tool they had used.”

Craven, who is a member of Healthy Androscoggin’s board, said she was concerned last summer that funding was redesigned to be politically manipulative. Lewiston-Auburn’s delegation is largely Democratic and members can be outspoken about Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

“I just thought the governor had a vendetta against Lewiston and against representatives from Lewiston and they knew that’s what’s near and dear to my heart, that Healthy Androscoggin is near and dear to my heart,” Craven said.

Leahy-Lind’s allegations brought up that concern again.

“This administration promised the most transparent administration ever, and in my opinion it is the least transparent that I’ve ever experienced in the 11 years that I’ve been up here,” Craven said. “This is public money and the public should know how it’s spent and they expect fairness.”

Craven is chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, which deals with the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services. She also is a member of the Government Oversight Committee. Rotundo is a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Before sending a complaint to the Maine Human Rights Commission, Leahy-Lind said she filed a complaint within the department for investigation by a state Equal Employment Opportunity officer. She said she had also filed a workers’ compensation claim because the medical condition that forced her to leave work was caused by harassment, hostility and retaliation on the job.

Leahy-Lind said she was set to return to her job when she was placed on administrative leave last week. In her complaint to the Maine Human Rights Commission, she said she was told the department placed her on leave while it investigates allegations that she shared inappropriate and/or untruthful information, including confidential information from senior management discussions.

The Maine Human Rights Commission will now review Leahy-Lind’s complaint and decide whether to investigate.

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