May 24, 2018
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Report: Maine CDC supervisors ordered staff to destroy documents

By Sun Journal

AUGUSTA, Maine — A state investigation has concluded that Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention staff were ordered by their supervisors to destroy documents related to the redistribution of healthy community coalition state funding last year.

In June 2012, over a two-week period after the state budget was enacted, the CDC surveyed Maine’s 27 Healthy Maine Partnership organizations and then ranked the agencies to re-establish funding levels and reassign which of the community coalitions would be considered “lead” agencies.

In the western district, which is Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, funding levels were cut from $313,000 to $120,000 — a 64 percent decrease — and the Healthy River Valley in Rumford was named the lead agency, taking over from Healthy Androscoggin in Lewiston.

Public questions quickly arose about the process CDC used, according to the report, and legislators from Lewiston and Auburn sought an explanation from DHHS. In addition, the Sun Journal submitted a Freedom of Access Act request seeking documents supporting CDC’s decisions; the full scope of that request was never complied with because documents could not be found.

These questions, coupled with a Sun Journal report of accusations by a former CDC agency director that she had been ordered to shred public documents used to set the new funding levels, prompted a request by the Government Oversight Committee for an investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability of the Maine State Legislature.

The report of that investigation was released Thursday, and has concluded that CDC staff were ordered by their supervisors to destroy documents.

According to the report, the staffers were told by their supervisors “only the final product should remain at the end of the process, not the working documents.”

Investigators also found that the agency “ended up developing some documents in response to FOAA requests because relevant documentation had not been maintained.”

CDC managers, who are not named in the report, told OPEGA “they believed the instruction or advice to destroy documentation may have resulted from a desire for version control, or to keep survey responses confidential,” and they denied any intention to cover up.

The two employees who were asked to destroy documents, who also are not named in the report, did not follow through and, according to the OPEGA report, OPEGA obtained and reviewed the documents supervisors had asked to be shredded, and “several observations from this report were made possible based on documentation” the employees retained.

The investigation also found that the methodology used by the CDC to determine healthy coalition funding was flawed, unorganized and not well documented, and that the criteria changed multiple times during the scoring process, which is contrary to standard practice under the request-for-proposals process.

The funding distributed to the healthy coalitions is primarily supported by the Fund for a Healthy Maine, using tobacco settlement and other funds, and administered through the Healthy Maine Partnerships under the authorization of the Department of Health and Human Services’ CDC. The Healthy Maine Partnerships are a collection of 27 agencies that supervise community-based approaches to public health improvements in schools and at work, including smoking cessation, nutrition and fitness programs.

Before the funding distribution was adjusted, CDC surveyed Healthy Maine Partnerships directors as part of its process to evaluate and score programs. According to the OPEGA report, the project officers and district liaisons who were surveyed were “intentionally not informed of the true purpose of the survey or how their ratings would be used.”

The CDC “had opportunity to manipulate the outcome” in the central district, according to the report, and the survey process used in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties was a departure from the overall process.

Although, according to the OPEGA report, when it re-evaluated the western district surveys, the outcome naming Healthy River Valley as the lead agency remained unchanged.

The report also found that the contract for the tribal district’s healthy community coalition was handled differently than other district coalitions, specifically that the $500,000 contract awarded to the tribal district was done as a sole-source nonbid contract and that it was developed outside the parameters used by other healthy community coalitions.

In 2012, the tribal district received $370,000 in state funding. Under the revised funding formula, it received $597,941 in 2013, or an increase of $227,941. Only three other districts received any increase, and the next largest was $64,509, for the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative.

According to the report, the contract was developed by the Office of Health Equity and was signed by the office director, “despite the fact that the director of that office had been unsure who developed” the contract.

“Changing numbers to manipulate specific outcomes is dishonest,” Sen. Margaret Craven, a member of the Government Oversight Committee, said. “This level of mismanagement of public dollars is becoming the status quo under this administration.”

“It’s clear the CDC didn’t use common sense let alone standard contracting procedures when they adjusted the HMP contracts,” Sen. Emily Cain, co-chairman of the oversight committee, said. “There’s no paper trail and no documentation to show whether or not their actions were appropriate. The lack of transparency and documentation is concerning.”

Craven said the committee would continue to review the report and seek public comment when it next meets in January.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, in a department response to OPEGA that was included in the report, said “the department appreciates the gravity of the issues raised.”

The commissioner acknowledged the process would have “benefited from additional expertise in the area of survey methodology and quality control,” but that wasn’t possible under the tight time constraints DHHS faced to “create a process to de-appropriate funds.”

Mayhew also said that, as part of the department’s commitment to handling documentation in an “accountable and transparent manner,” DHHS is working with the Maine State Archives office to review and update its records management policies and practices.

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