AUGUSTA — A former Maine Department of Health and Human Services employee told lawmakers Friday that her boss ordered her to destroy public records because a newspaper planned to request them under the Freedom of Access Act.

Sharon Leahy-Lind, who was director of local public health for the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stepped down from her job in July and filed a federal lawsuit in October under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

She testified before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Friday during a public hearing on a report released last month that was highly critical of the CDC for its role in the alleged document shredding.

Committee members deferred action on the report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability until their next meeting, on Jan. 24, but talked at length about what the state’s responsibility is to keep certain records and whether those responsibilities are being met.

“There is not much use to have a (public access) law if we can’t enforce it, and the CDC is not the only agency out of compliance recently,” said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, referring to the LePage administration’s recent refusal to release a consultant’s report on the impact of Medicaid expansion despite repeated requests by media outlets.

Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, said there is no evidence that documents were shredded, only that they were not retained. That applies to both paper copies and electronic copies of documents, she said.

The incident came to light early last year. Its origin was a funding cut to the Healthy Maine Partnership program, from $7.5 million in 2012 to $4.7 million in 2013.

To redistribute funds accordingly, CDC officials hastily reworked the award process. They began facing questions after awards were slashed in more populated regions and increased in rural districts.

The grants fund health initiatives, including smoking cessation and fitness programs, that often are used and praised by employers and health advocates. The money is distributed primarily through the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which has had severe budget cuts over the past three years.

The shift in funds prompted the Sun Journal of Lewiston to ask state officials about the process. At that point, Leahy-Lind said, she was told by supervisors to shred documents.

She did not identify her supervisor in her testimony Friday, but in the federal lawsuit she filed in October, she said that CDC Deputy Director Christine Zukas “physically assaulted and ordered her to take the documents home and destroy them there.”

On Friday, Leahy-Lind said the way she was treated by her bosses during the incident was “the antithesis of the department I had worked for for 12 years.”

CDC officials later created documents to satisfy the Sun Journal’s public records request.

The report released last month was critical of the CDC but offered a number of recommendations, including:

Gathering better performance data, rather than relying on subjective information.

Ensuring the integrity of future processes for awarding grants under the Healthy Maine Partnership Program.

Offering better guidance and clarification to employees about the agency’s policy for document retention.

William Boeschenstein, chief operating officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, acknowledged Friday that the incident highlighted weaknesses in the agency and said his office has taken steps to ensure that documents are properly handled and retained.

During the investigation, unnamed officials in the CDC told investigators that they believed the documents were “working papers,” rather than final documents, so they were not public records.

Some lawmakers, including Craven, said employees in the CDC should be held accountable for what happened.

“If something like this happened in the private sector, there would be consequences,” Craven said. “What is going to happen now within the department to the folks that were involved in the shredding?”

Boeschenstein said he couldn’t comment on any personnel matters and would not provide more specifics because of Leahy-Lind’s pending lawsuit.

Not everyone was ready to blame CDC officials who may have been involved in the destruction of documents.

“I want to be careful about what is alleged to have been done,” said Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, “That action may have been done for legitimate reasons; we’ve got to be real careful about coming to the consensus that something wrong was done.”

The Attorney General’s Office is investigating the document-shredding claim. Under the Freedom of Access Act, it is a Class D crime to willfully destroy or remove public documents possessed by a state entity, although Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner said Friday that it’s hard to prove willful destruction.

Friday’s hearing hinted at a broader conversation for lawmakers, about how public records should be handled, including how long they must be retained.

Dave Cheever, the state archivist, told lawmakers that all state employees should know and understand their responsibilities regarding records, but not all do. And, he said, there are still departments that do not have dedicated records officers.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell