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Answers Sought in Maine CDC Document Shredding Incident
01/24/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A legislative watchdog panel wants the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to provide more information about why the agency staff shredded documents used in reallocating nearly $5 million in funding to state regional health programs. Members of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee say state investigators were frustrated by inconsistencies in the explanations offered by top CDC officials, and will now invite them to elaborate on the activities that resulted in the destruction of state documents. A.J. Higgins has more.

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As a member of the Government Oversight Committee, Sen. Roger Katz has been forced to subpoena state officials to appear before his panel in order to get to the bottom of unresolved state issues before. It happened in 2011 when the committee investigated fraud complaints at the Maine Turnpike Authority.

There were unanswered questions then, and the Augusta Republican says he has unanswered questions now regarding document shredding at the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We just don't know if it's because people didn't know what the right thing to do was, or if they knew what the right thing to do was and just chose not to," Katz says.

There would be a big difference between the two according to Sen. Emily Cain, the Orono Democrat who co-chairs the panel that oversees the operations of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. She says OPEGA investigators were having trouble obtaining consistent stories about the events that led up to a re-scoring of regional health agencies competing for a portion of a $5 million grant two years ago.

Since then, an OPEGA investigation concluded that documents that would have shed light on the process were shredded, and a CDC employee who claims she was ordered to shred the documents by her supervisors has filed suit against the agency under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.

During a lengthy review of the issue, the Government Oversight Committee members said the gaps in in the flow of information provided to OPEGA staffers by CDC Director Sheila Pinette and some of her top management staff need to be filled.

"They are the directly related parties," Cain says. "And if that is not successful and they choose not to participate, if they decline the invitation or we feel like the questions aren't answered, we still have available to us that next step of subpoenas and a more formal investigatory role for the Government Oversight Committee."

Not all of the committee's members are on board with the decision. Sen. Ed Youngblood, a Brewer Republican, and GOP Sen. David Burns, of Whiting, don't like the idea of bringing in the LePage administration officials in for questioning. Youngblood worries it could turn into a witch hunt by the Maine media, and Burns just thinks it's poor form.

"I guess I'm not convinced that it's necessary at this point, and there is a big difference to me," Burns said. "Once you invite somebody, or you subpoena somebody, into the public forum like this, you automatically have tainted their reputation, no matter what the facts reveal. I believe that," Burns said.

Other committee members expressed concerns about the the implications of bringing in top CDC officials for a legislative inquiry while the state supervisors were embroiled in a civil suit.

But most of the lawmakers concluded that the legal proceedings should not preclude lawmakers from determining whether changes in Maine law are necessary to prevent a recurrence of document shredding elsewhere in the bureaucracy. Rep. David Cotta is a Republican from China.

"They aren't mutually exclusive - I think they can both be done because we have the same goal, between the director and this committee, of just identifying the process," Cotta said. "The civil matter, the suit, has nothing to do with us - we're just about the process."

Sen. Emily Cain says the committee will extend an invitation to the CDC director and others to attend the panel's Feb. 14 meeting.



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