February 11

Maine CDC officials duck legislative panel’s inquiry on shredding

All five decline to answer questions from an oversight committee about controversial health grant awards. Subpoenas may be next.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Officials in the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention have refused lawmakers’ request to appear at a committee meeting on the shredding of public documents related to the agency’s awards of public health grants last year.

All five officials who were asked to testify before the Government Oversight Committee, including CDC Director Sheila Pinette, have notified the committee that they will not attend Friday’s meeting. The committee now must consider whether to subpoena the officials, in a case that has drawn scrutiny from the state Attorney General’s Office and triggered a whistleblower lawsuit.

The court case was initiated by Sharon Leahy-Lind, former director of the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health, who alleges that her supervisor, Deputy Director Christine Zukas, told her to shred documents related to $4.7 million in Healthy Maine Partnerships grant awards.

Leahy-Lind says Zukas told her to do so after the Sun Journal newspaper in Lewiston requested the documents through the Freedom of Access Act. Leahy-Lind claims she was harassed and discriminated against for not complying with the directive by Zukas. She eventually left her job, citing harassment for making the issue public.

Leahy-Lind has been asked to attend Friday’s committee meeting. According to Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, Leahy-Lind has agreed to attend but her former colleagues have not.

“The consistent word we’ve received is that the (Department of Health and Human Services) attorney advised the people who received invitations that they could not appear on behalf of the department,” said Cain, a member of the committee.

“I’m concerned about that because this is not a public hearing where they would be choosing to come to weigh in on a bill,” Cain said. “These people have been specifically requested because of their roles inside the department. It’s concerning to me because the department’s email, in my opinion, implies attending the meeting would somehow be in conflict with their work.”

Kevin Wells, chief legal counsel for the DHHS, which oversees the CDC, provided the Portland Press Herald with a copy of his email message to the officials who were invited to the meeting.

It reads: “If you choose to attend this meeting then please be advised that you are NOT authorized to speak for or otherwise represent the Department of Health and Human Services or Center for Disease Control and Prevention in any capacity and that your attendance would ONLY be in your personal capacity. As the department understands the letter, it is only an invitation to attend and does not compel you to attend the meeting. Whether you decide to attend the meeting is up to you. Please be advised, however, that the department is aware that the GOC may consider issuing a subpoena to compel your attendance if you choose not to attend the meeting.”

Cain said the committee will have to decide its next step.

Wells’ email also refers to statements by Leahy-Lind and her attorney, Cynthia Dill, that she has been interviewed by the FBI about her claims.

“Please also be advised that the department is also aware of public statements, by the attorney for the plaintiff in the lawsuit pending in federal court, to the effect that the FBI has interviewed the plaintiff regarding matters that may be discussed at the GOC meeting,” Wells wrote. “Finally, please note that you have the right to consult with your own attorney regarding whether you should attend the GOC meeting and that you may wish to do so.”

Special Agent Greg Comcowich, a regional FBI spokesman in Boston, told the Press Herald last month that he would not comment on any federal involvement in the case.

(Continued on page 2)

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