Maine CDC workers claim harassment, threats

Posted April 21, 2013, at 12:13 p.m.
The Maine Center for Disease Control office in Augusta.
Scott Thistle | Sun Journal
The Maine Center for Disease Control office in Augusta.

Sun Journal interviews with a handful of current and former workers from the Maine Center for Disease Control echoed allegations of harassment, threats and poor management filed in a complaint a little over two weeks ago by a current CDC director.

Employees paint a picture of an ineffectual leader who lets upper management run wild. They tell of threats and intimidation, of screaming bosses, of demands that are, at best, unethical, and at worst, illegal.

They talk of promotions for workers who don’t question the way things are run and intra-office spying on those who do.

They call the CDC “The Third Reich,” “a reign of terror” and, plainly, “hell.”

Since the director of the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health filed a complaint of discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission a little more than two weeks ago, a number of her CDC co-workers have come forward to support her allegations.

They are current and former workers and supervisors from at least four divisions within the CDC. Some worked directly with the woman who filed the complaint; others barely know her. Many have advanced degrees and years of experience, both in the CDC and out.

A couple of the employees spoke on the record. One former worker wrote a detailed letter to state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, and the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee. He called his new workplace, The Jackson Laboratory, “a welcome relief.”

Others, concerned about retaliation, spoke on the condition of anonymity. As much as they loathe the atmosphere at the CDC, they said, they need their jobs.

“It gets very, very scary if people know we’re talking,” one employee said.

But some people — community leaders, CDC grant recipients and health advocates — say there’s no way any of that can be true. They have worked with the two CDC officials at the heart of the allegations and say they are kind, compassionate and professional. They believe the women are getting a bad rap, and they can’t imagine why.

“Maybe there were misunderstandings. Happens all the time in business,” said Ron Deprez, director of the Center for Community and Public Health at the University of New England. “But all I know is these two women are two of the best people I’ve ever worked with in the state.”

‘I almost called 911′

The Maine Human Rights Commission complaint that sparked the controversy is just over three pages long. In it, division director Sharon Leahy-Lind alleges, among other things, that her bosses ordered her to shred documents that showed the scoring results for the 27 Healthy Maine Partnerships organizations at the center of last summer’s controversy over state funding. She claims the scoring was manipulated to favor certain organizations over others, with millions of dollars in the balance.

Leahy-Lind said she refused to destroy the documents because that would have been illegal. When the CDC’s deputy director learned that she hadn’t destroyed the documents, according to Leahy-Lind’s complaint, she “physically assaulted me and ordered me to take the documents to my home and destroy and dispose of them there.” Leahy-Lind 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. At one point, she said, she was told “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 Partnership, or face adverse employment consequences.”

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

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

“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.

She said she was also threatened with losing her job if she didn’t discipline targeted employees, including one who was a member of a minority group.

“I believe I was being used by them to carry out unlawful discrimination,” she said in her complaint of her bosses.

Leahy-Lind said the workplace was so stressful that she had trouble breathing and took a medical leave.

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.

To the Sun Journal, CDC office manager Katie Woodbury recently echoed many of Leahy-Lind’s claims, including the allegation that Healthy Maine Partnerships funding was manipulated.

Woodbury said she didn’t see the scoring sheets that were used to determine funding for each of the offices, but she heard from a couple of the district liaisons responsible for scoring who saw the original sheets and the final scores.

“They were up in arms over that because it wasn’t who they picked,” she said.

Through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services/CDC spokesman, the Sun Journal requested to speak to the CDC liaisons who scored the Healthy Maine Partnerships organizations, but they did not respond.

Woodbury also said she was present when Leahy-Lind once got kicked under the table during a meeting.

“I felt it. They got the wrong person,” said Woodbury, who spoke to the Sun Journal despite still working there. “Sharon had just finished speaking about something.”

Woodbury said she once heard Sockabasin screaming at Leahy-Lind from two doors away — “It was loud and it was not nice” — and Woodbury experienced similar treatment from Zukas.

“If you do not agree with Chris Zukas, she’s got a hair trigger and she’ll rip you up,” Woodbury said. “I’m a person that can take that, but I won’t. Some of the stuff that’s going on in that workplace is abuse. Blatant abuse.”

Woodbury said she spoke to Leahy-Lind shortly before she left on medical leave and Leahy-Lind was “very distraught.”

“I almost called 911,” Woodbury said. “She couldn’t catch her breath. … I couldn’t believe a couple of people could reduce somebody to that state.”

She and others said their bosses told them to spy on their co-workers, and retaliated against those they didn’t like or those who challenged the way things were run.

“I’ve gone to work on a certain day where they’ve taken an employee who’s been there for 18 years, completely changed their job … and told her she’s going to move [to a new location] but not told her where she’s going to move. They keep that until the very last second, for like two months, and then they say, ‘Tomorrow, you’re going to move here,’” Woodbury said.

She said her co-workers fear management.

“They’re referred to as the Third Reich. The reign of terror. And that is how they operate,” Woodbury said. “I don’t know where these women get their power, but they’re getting it from somebody.”

She said she decided to speak publicly because she feels too much has gotten “shoved under the rug.”

“Somebody’s got to do something to stop them,” she said. “And if I can help, I will.”

Other workers say they saw or experienced problems, too. Some say they complained about the situation during an investigation this winter by the state’s Office of Employee Relations, though they saw no subsequent changes.

A spokesman for the state’s Office of Employee Relations forwarded Sun Journal questions about the investigation to a DHHS/CDC spokesman. That spokesman declined to comment, citing personnel matters.

Some of the workers who spoke to the Sun Journal said they had their concerns in mind when they filled out a DHHS employee climate survey in January. Through a Freedom of Access Act request, the Sun Journal obtained a copy of that survey. The survey found that CDC workers tended to be more concerned than those in other DHHS offices about communication, decision-making in the office and executive management. The survey report, which was released to DHHS management in March, noted 12 areas that needed to be improved. Of those, eight had to do with management or the workplace atmosphere, including respect, fairness and trust.

The survey report said responses would be given to senior leadership “to craft a plan to respond and work to improve these areas of opportunity.” It also said focus groups would be established and a plan developed to address areas of concern.

Requests for an investigation

The employees who spoke to the Sun Journal said their concerns about CDC management began around 2011, when Dora Anne Mills left and Sheila Pinette took over as head of the agency. They say Zukas and Sockabasin were never particularly easy to work with, but they got dramatically worse with the change in leadership.

Employees say Pinette is a nice woman but ineffectual when it comes to management. They say Zukas and Sockabasin seem to have free reign with employees, projects and money.

“These two could never have pulled this nonsense when Dora was here,” said one employee who asked to remain anonymous because she feared for her job.

Mills has declined to comment on the allegations.

Employees say bullying and intimidation have trickled down to other managers, some of whom have started behaving badly, too.

State Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, said he’s heard over the past year and a half from about 10 employees who complained to him about personnel practices and work conditions at the Department of Health and Human Services. Although none of the complaints focused on the CDC, that agency is part of DHHS. About a month ago, Johnson asked the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee for a formal state investigation into the DHHS by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, known as OPEGA.

Craven, the state senator from Lewiston, has heard from five current and former CDC workers since Leahy-Lind’s Maine Human Rights Commission complaint went public.

A member of the board of Healthy Androscoggin, one of the Healthy Maine Partnerships organizations that lost significant funding last summer, Craven challenged the CDC on that funding change and questioned CDC leaders. She said employees approached her with similar stories of bullying, yelling and name-calling.

“The ones that had left there just said that they left because they couldn’t tolerate it anymore,” Craven said.

She and four other lawmakers have asked for a formal investigation into the CDC by OPEGA.

Of the CDC workers who spoke with the Sun Journal, at least one — Brian Bernier — also spoke with Craven. He wrote her a four-page letter, copied to OPEGA, detailing what he saw, heard and learned from others while he was a supervisor with the CDC’s Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory.

Bernier said he’d been with the lab for 10 years and left last August. During that time, he said, the lab lacked money, in part because its funds, including federal grants earmarked for the lab, were spent elsewhere by upper management.

“At one point, I recall, the lab couldn’t pay its FedEx bill,” Bernier said. “And because the lab couldn’t pay its FedEx bill, those samples that were required to be sent to [the federal CDC in] Atlanta … we couldn’t send these things down.”

He said he saw employees hired or promoted based not on their work but on whom management liked best and felt would not challenge the status quo.

“Anyone that gave them any scrutiny, argued with them, challenged them, were completely out of the running,” Bernier said. “That happened to me on a number of occasions.”

Bernier, who has a master’s degree in applied immunology and molecular biology, a master’s degree in public health, board certification in public health and board certification as a technologist in molecular biology, left the CDC about eight months ago. He said he was recruited by The Jackson Laboratory and now works as a manager there.

“I must say that it is a welcome relief to be employed in an environment where my efforts are supported by a transparent senior management team and where employees are rewarded on a performance basis,” he said in his letter.

In all, the Sun Journal talked to five current or former employees. All spoke of harassment, bullying, intimidation and fear.

Pinette, Zukas and Sockabasin did not respond to requests for interviews or prepared statements. There was no response to an open request from the Sun Journal through the spokesman for anyone at DHHS, including Commissioner Mary Mayhew, to talk about the allegations.

However, their public health colleagues and friends say they’re happy to talk.

“What I’ve read in the newspaper accounts just doesn’t square with the people I know,” said James Harnar, executive director of the Daniel Hanley Center for Health Leadership in Portland.

‘Completely out of character’

In the days after Leahy-Lind’s complaint was made public, the Governor’s Office, DHHS and CDC received half a dozen letters and emails in support of Zukas and Sockabasin. Those letters and notes were shared with the Sun Journal, at the paper’s request.

“For what it is worth, I have always found Chris Zukas and Lisa Sockabasin to be consummate professionals,” wrote Shawn Yardley, director of Bangor Health and Community Services, in an email to Mayhew. “Having worked closely with them over the years and in a number of settings, I have always found them to be very appropriate in discussions and planning.”

“Ms. Sockabasin is a woman of integrity, professionalism and with unshakable ethical standards,” wrote Marjorie Withers, head of the Washington County-based Community Caring Collaborative, in a letter to Mayhew.

“I have been in both professional and personal situations with her many times and have not observed Ms. Sockabasin acting in any way other than professional and courteous,” wrote Brenda Commander, tribal chief for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, in a letter to Gov. Paul LePage.

“Please know that you have legions of friends, supporters and colleagues across Maine who admire your leadership and integrity — and want to help in any way we can. I am one of them,” wrote Harnar in an email to Pinette.

Others called the Sun Journal.

“I’ve always encountered Lisa [Sockabasin] and admired her ability to be very diplomatic and just, for lack of a better word, nonexplosive,” said Nakia Dana, health director for the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Indian Township.

Elizabeth Neptune worked with the women at the CDC as a project manager from 2009 to 2011 and now runs a consulting group that often deals with tribal health-care issues. She said she was “astounded” and “astonished” by allegations of bad behavior.

“It’s completely out of character,” she said.

Nearly all of the women’s supporters have connections to CDC grant funding. Some have known Zukas or Sockabasin for a decade or more, before they became leaders at the CDC. Others met them in recent years through work with the department.

They said Sockabasin, in particular, is compassionate, level-headed and caring. She’s worked, they said, to get fair funding and health care to Maine’s minority groups, including its tribes.

Many took offense at the suggestion she gave the tribes preferential treatment.

“We’re a minority and her advocacy on behalf of all people of color in Maine, but most effectively, the tribal health programs, is being misconstrued as favoritism,” Dana said. “That really hits a nerve with me, my chief, my people.”

None can fathom why anyone would say anything negative about the women, though a couple made guesses.

“I think [Sockabasin] stepped on some toes,” said Patricia Knox-Nicola, former Penobscot tribal health director and current consultant for the five Maine tribal health departments. “She’s made people a little uncomfortable and encouraged them to work with people they didn’t necessarily want to. I think that’s what people are frustrated about and it comes across as, ‘She’s forced us to do things we’ve never had to do before.’ Or she’s held them accountable for their job responsibilities.”

Supporters acknowledged they didn’t know what Zukas or Sockabasin are like in the office, but they had a difficult time believing they could be so different from the women they know.

Many hope an investigation will end the speculation, whatever the outcome.

“You have to have an investigation,” said Deprez at UNE, “otherwise, reputations get smeared, on all sides.”

The Maine Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the allegation that CDC officials ordered the shredding of public records, according to OPEGA. The AG’s Office generally conducts a review to determine whether there is basis for an investigation.

Government Oversight Committee members last week took the first step toward ordering an OPEGA investigation into the allegations that CDC management has harassed and intimidated employees and did not use proper criteria when deciding to allocate millions of dollars for community health organizations last year. Members decided to pair allegations of bad behavior at the CDC with the complaints about the DHHS raised by Sen. Johnson, and possibly order an investigation of the two together.

The committee has 17 topics it’s considering forwarding to OPEGA. Over the coming weeks, members will look at the list and decide which ones OPEGA should work on.

Leahy-Lind’s complaint is in the hands of the Maine Human Rights Commission. It will likely take months for an investigation and a ruling.

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