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Maine Lawmakers Scrutinize CDC Document Shredding Order
01/10/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention was scrutinized at a public hearing today for allegedly ordering the shredding public documents to evade a Freedom of Information request. The incident has raised questions about government transparency. And as Patty Wight reports, the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee is trying to decide what final actions to take.

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CDC Document Shredding Order Scrutinized
Originally Aired: 1/10/2014 5:30 PM

The paperwork in question documented how the CDC determined funding levels for 27 different organizations that promote health under the Healthy Maine Partnerships program. The incident was investigated by the government accountability office, OPEGA, which issued a report in December.

It found that in 2012, a CDC deputy director ordered two staff members to only retain the final documents and destroy the rest. Former CDC staffer Sharon Leahy-Lind testified before the Government Oversight Committee.

"In June 2012, I was ordered to shred public documents related to the entire Healthy Maine Partnerships process by the Maine CDC deputy director," she said. "And the stated reason was because she anticpated there would be a FOIA request for these documents."

Leahy-Lind says she refused to destroy the documents and suffered harrassment and discrimination as a result. She has a pending lawsuit over the matter.

The CDC falls under the authority of DHHS, and Chief Operating Officer William Boeschenstein says the department is always looking to improve its practices, and is seeking guidance from the state archive office to determine which documents to retain.

"As you can imagine, we have thousands and thousands and thousands of documents, and I think it was actually referenced in the OPEGA review that the department cannot be expected to retain every single document," Boeschenstein said.

It was the Lewiston Sun Journal who make the Freedom of Information request for the CDC documents, and Managing Editor Judy Meyer says the situation reveals a serious threat to the public trust because it is not an isolated event. She says DHHS also evaded the paper's FOIA request for the recent Alexander Report on Medicaid expansion costs.

"If something doesn't change, we can't come to OPEGA every time we have a concern and ask for an investigation," Meyer said.

Democratic Sen. Chris Johnson was among the lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee who says they were concerned about the issue.

"Really a matter of, not just wrongdoing, but contempt and obstruction, in the form of unlawful destruction and fraudulent information," Johnsons ays.

But the dommittee did not decide on any specific actions. The director of OPEGA, Beth Ashcroft, says the committee will consider a number of options, including increasing the authority of Maine's Public Access Ombudsmen.

"I do think it has opened up a larger discussion about what documents are expected to be retained here in state government, particularly those supporting decisions that involve significant funding or policy choices or affect to the public in major ways," Ashcroft says.

The Government Oversight Committee will hold a work session on the issue Jan. 24.


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