Maine CDC officials say they were told to destroy documents

Posted March 14, 2014, at 11:22 a.m.
Last modified March 14, 2014, at 6:48 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Center for Disease Control officials at the heart of a document-shredding probe told lawmakers Friday morning that they were ordered to destroy documents as a method of “version control.”

CDC Division Director Deborah Wigand told members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee that CDC workers were asked to destroy documents related to the distribution of funds in the Healthy Maine Partnership program.

In response to questions from committee members, she said that senior program manager Andrew Finch told her that he was asked to destroy documents and was uncomfortable with that.

She said she told Finch to do what he was comfortable doing.

Wigand repeatedly denied remembering that she was asked to destroy documents. She also denied asking anyone to destroy documents.

Wigand also said she didn’t think destroying the documents was an attempt at concealment but “version control.”

Wigand testified that Deputy Director Christine Zukas gave the order to destroy documents.

Finch testified that Zukas asked him to “purge my files for all the working documents.”

CDC staff were answering questions in open session after the Government Oversight Committee voted 7-3 Friday to keep the questioning in open session.

The committee subpoenaed Zukas, Wigand, Finch, CDC Director Sheila Pinette and Office of Minority Health and Health Equity Director Lisa Sockabasin to appear before it and answer questions under oath after the five officials declined an earlier invitation.

The oversight committee is the only legislative committee that can subpoena witnesses. If CDC officials had refused to appear, the committee could have gone to Superior Court to compel them to obey.

Sharon Leahy-Lind, the former CDC division director whose document-shredding allegations led to the investigation, also was subpoenaed to appear Friday. She was the only one who did not ask to testify behind closed doors.

Leahy-Lind testified Friday that she was involved in developing criteria to rank Healthy Maine Partnerships. She was not aware of any weighting of criteria.

But Leahy-Lind said she was surprised to see that Bangor’s HMP was the lead agency for the Penquis region. When she asked why, she said Pinette told her it was political. “Shawn Yardley [director of Bangor's Department of Health and Community Services] has been a wonderful partner” was the answer she was given.

“It’s become clear to me there’s been a manipulation of data … with respect to outcome of leads,” Leahy-Lind testified Friday.

Leahy-Lind said later she was told by Zukas to destroy any HMP working documents and to tell Andrew Finch to destroy his documents. “I was told to shred all documentation related to the HMPs. All of my files.” She said she refused.

In another encounter, Leahy-Lind said Zukas grabbed her by the arm and demanded to destroy the documents.

In a later meeting, Leahy-Lind says Zukas told her not to communicate any more by email. She was to use instant messaging on her Blackberry because those messages were not subject to FOAA.

Office of Minority Health and Health Equity Director Lisa Sockabasin testified she knows little about and remembers little about Healthy Maine Partnership meetings and discussions because HMPs were not her responsibility. She also said she was never told to destroy documents.

Sockabasin denied there was “an air of secrecy.” She said she did not use Blackberry instant messaging to communicate. When asked if she was instructed to avoid emails to skirt FOAA, she responded, “Absolutely not.”

Sockabasin said she does recall Leahy-Lind telling her that she was told to “shred” documents. But Sockabasin understood the issue was “version control.”

CDC Deputy Director Zukas said the decision process at the CDC is a collaborative process. Many people help make decisions. But she said she was not involved in the scoring of HMPs.

Zukas said the practice was to keep the final version of documents. She said she saw confusion over the different versions of documents so she ordered the previous versions destroyed.

Zukas said she “directed” Leahy-Lind to get rid of the working documents. But she denies it was an order.

Zukas said she did get rid of a document that showed an earlier ranking that did not have the Bangor HMP as a lead agency. “I either put it in the shredder or I put it in my recycle bin,” Zukas said.

Zukas denies she ever was physical with Leahy-Lind or anyone else at CDC.

The allegations of document destruction came to light last spring when Leahy-Lind, then-director for the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health, filed a complaint of harassment with the Maine Human Rights Commission. She since has filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit.

She has said her bosses at the CDC told her to shred public documents related to grant funding for the state’s Healthy Maine Partnerships program. When she refused, she said, she faced harassment and retaliation. She since has left her job at the CDC.

A CDC office manager has echoed Leahy-Lind’s allegations and is seeking to be added as a plaintiff to her suit.

At the oversight committee’s behest, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigated the CDC over several months. Its December report noted a host of problems, including supervisors who ordered the destruction of public documents, workers who created documents specifically to fulfill a Sun Journal Freedom of Access Act request, funding criteria that was changed during the selection process, Healthy Maine Partnerships funding scores that were changed just before the final selection, a tribal Healthy Maine Partnerships contract that the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability couldn’t discern who was responsible for developing, reviewing or approving, and a critical Healthy Maine Partnerships scoring sheet that has vanished.

The investigation also found that money may have gone where it shouldn’t have.

Lawyers from the Maine attorney general’s office had been defending Pinette and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, in Leahy-Lind’s suit. The AG’s office withdrew that representation in January, citing “a recent and unexpected development.”

The state since has hired private lawyers for DHHS and Pinette. The new lawyers asked the oversight committee to suspend its document-shredding probe or at least stop seeking testimony from any CDC employee who is party to or may be called as a witness in the lawsuit.

The committee refused.

Members of the committee say they hope to determine why public records were ordered destroyed and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again.

 

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