February 12

OUR OPINION: Legislative panel needs to keep digging in CDC shredding case

The committee should use subpoenas to get answers.

Millions of dollars in public health grants awarded by the state were done so in a slipshod fashion. That much is clear.

But it is not apparent just why the process at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention — marked by poor recordkeeping and shifting criteria, and followed by claims of political manipulation and worker harassment — went so wrong.

That’s why it’s important that the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee speaks directly with the people involved. If the CDC officials refuse to answer the committee’s questions on their own accord, as appears to be the case, the committee should use its subpoena power to compel them to appear, so that lawmakers can settle concerns now almost two years old.

The questions first surfaced in June 2012. Funding for Healthy Maine Partnership grants, which support smoking cessation, fitness and health programs, had been cut. As a result, the way the grants were distributed was reorganized, with a few local groups designated through a competitive process to receive the lion’s share of $4.7 million.

Lewiston-area lawmakers, and the Sun Journal newspaper, took issue with the amount distributed to a group there and requested answers from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC.

The request by the newspaper led CDC officials to order workers to shred documents related to the grant awards process, according to a complaint filed last April by a CDC manager, Sharon Leahy-Lind.

Leahy-Lind, who claimed she was subjected to a hostile workplace because of her refusal to follow the order, has since resigned and filed a civil lawsuit against DHHS, which is still pending.

The Government Oversight Committee, as a result of those allegations, asked the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to investigate how the Healthy Maine Partnership funds were distributed and whether the process was documented properly.

That report, released last December, found “strong indications” that the criteria used to determine which groups would get the most money shifted during the selection process. In at least one case, a change in criteria pushed one group ahead of another, suggesting the scoring may have been manipulated.

OPEGA was unable to determine the extent of the wrongdoing, however, because the CDC had written over or destroyed the documentation of all but the final part of the process. As a result, it is difficult to tell how the grant awards were justified.

So, were the mistakes on the scoring process the result of the rush to reorganize the program, or was it set up to award certain groups? Were the public documents destroyed because of a misunderstanding, or were employees pressured to cover up a flawed scoring?

Those are the questions that need to be answered, for the sake of good government. And if the CDC officials won’t appear before the oversight committee voluntary, then the committee should issue subpoenas to compel their cooperation.

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