June 24, 2018
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Legislative oversight panel OKs probe of document shredding allegation

By Scott Thistle, Sun Journal

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has approved the scope of an investigation into the Maine Center for Disease Control, including whether CDC workers unfairly distributed program funding or destroyed public documents.

The committee also decided to let the federal government finish its investigation into concerns over a meeting between Gov. Paul LePage and Maine Department of Labor unemployment officers before taking any action on the issue.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability will start its CDC investigation immediately.

In April, Sharon Leahy-Lind, director of the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health, sent a complaint of discrimination to the Maine Human Rights Commission alleging, among other things, that her bosses ordered her to destroy documents that showed the scoring results for the 27 Healthy Maine Partnerships after those documents were requested under the state’s open records laws by the Sun Journal newspaper last June.

Through her attorney, Leahy-Lind also said the scoring was manipulated to favor certain organizations over others and that the official scoring results posted on the CDC’s website differed from the scoring results she was originally told to shred.

Those scores determined which organization got hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, and other lawmakers asked the Government Oversight Committee to consider the investigation last month.

When the funding decision was announced last summer, both Craven and Rotundo expressed concerns about the fairness of the process and met with both the CDC’s director and the Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services Mary Mayhew.

The Government Oversight Committee voted two weeks ago to put a CDC investigation on OPEGA’s work schedule. On Friday, OPEGA’s executive director Beth Ashcroft suggested that the scope of the investigation seek to answer two key questions:

— Did the Maine CDC use appropriate and consistent processes for scoring Healthy Maine Partnerships, selecting lead agencies and determining how funds would be allocated among the HMPs for fiscal year 2013?

— Did Maine CDC maintain adequate documentation supporting key Healthy Maine Partnership scoring, selection and funding decisions for fiscal year 2013 and were any documents related to to the scoring, selection and funding decisions for those contracts disposed of or concealed?

“I assume ‘disposed of or concealed’ captures the whole shredding element,” Committee Chairwoman Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono said.

The committee unanimously approved the two questions and the scope of the investigation. Ashcroft said the investigation will start immediately.

It’s unclear how long the investigation will take, but Ashcroft said it will likely last a few months.

OPEGA will also look to see if the state’s CDC used an appropriate and consistent process when it divvied up state funds for Healthy Maine Partnerships across the state and selected new “lead” partnerships in that process.

In a separate action, the committee decided to take a “wait and see” approach to questions around whether Gov. Paul LePage exerted any “undue influence” over Maine Department of Labor unemployment claims appeals hearing officers during a March 21 luncheon at the governor’s official residence, the Blaine House.

Some of those at the luncheon said LePage pressured them to decide more claims for business and fewer for workers. LePage later said the complaints were fabricated by David Webbert, the president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association.

Webbert called for an “immediate investigation” into the governor’s actions and “other high-level officials for violations of federal laws requiring the impartial and prompt administration of unemployment insurance benefits.”

Ashcroft briefed the committee on an ongoing federal investigation being conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Solicitor General.

She said the scope of that inquiry coupled with the work expected from a task force, appointed by LePage, to examine the overall fairness of the system would likely replicate any investigation OPEGA could conduct.

Ashcroft said the federal Labor Department would issue a letter to the state of Maine with its findings at some point. Ashcroft said it was not expected to take, “months and months,” but the federal officials working on the case, “really couldn’t say for sure when their final result would be in.”

The committee decided it would leave the topic on their agenda of unfinished business and would take it up after the reports from the federal government and unemployment task force were complete.

Ashcroft said the final details on the task force, which LePage announced in the wake of the controversy around the luncheon, would be included in a executive order the governor has yet to issue.

“We all have an interest in making sure that any quasi-judicial officer in Maine is operating in an environment free of any undue influence from anyone,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. “About how to decide a particular case or about how to approach cases in general they’ve got to be completely impartial.”

Katz and the other committee members agreed, however, they were comfortable with letting the federal government proceed with its work for now.

Cain said the case was important given it is dealing with a complaint against one of the state’s top-level elected officials, “and so we have to be very careful about power dynamics.”

Cain said the ultimate hope of any inquiry is a restoration of public faith that the unemployment hearing process is fair.

She promised the committee would be revisiting the issues regardless.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Robert Long as the writer. Scott Thistle, state politics editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, wrote the story.

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