Officials should have known better than to destroy documents that belong to the people

Nearly two years after questions first surfaced about how the state awarded millions of dollars in public health grants, a legislative panel has agreed that state officials destroyed documents related to the grant process. Now the Government Oversight Committee will leave it up to the Maine Attorney General’s Office to determine whether grounds exist for further investigation of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s up to the state’s top law enforcement agency to decide whether CDC officials’ actions rise to the level of a crime or whether they’re an example of unethical behavior. But a state legislator’s contention that documents were destroyed because of poor retention policies doesn’t hold up. Even the least experienced public official should know enough to retain documentation of how the public’s money is spent — it’s a task that’s central to the mission of government. What’s more, the facts on the record point to manipulation of the grant process and attempts to change the record after the fact. Tweaks to agency policies won’t do much to prevent behavior that’s this far out of line.

The controversy centers on the distribution in 2012 of $4.7 million in Healthy Maine Partnership grants. CDC officials reworked the competitive grant process after funding was reduced and redirected the lion’s share of the money to a few agencies in rural areas. When the Lewiston Sun Journal requested records of how the funds were allocated, top CDC officials ordered workers to shred them, according to a complaint filed by a CDC manager who has since resigned.

Nobody disputes that records were shredded — the question now is why. Gray areas in the Freedom of Access Act make it tough to prove intentional destruction of public records, which is a Class D crime. But Rep. David Cotta, R-China, was on shaky ground Wednesday when he called the document destruction part of a “system failure” that didn’t thoroughly outline policies on record retention.

Plenty of information is available regarding public rights and government responsibilities under public records laws. If top-level CDC officials aren’t aware of the transparency requirements they face, that says more about a lack of interest in learning about the law than about a lack of training on the statute.

Whatever the Attorney General’s Office does next, sparse documentation on the Healthy Maine Partnerships grants will be a roadblock — as it was for the watchdog agency asked to investigate the matter. An Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability report found “strong indications” of changes in the criteria used to determine which groups would get the most money, suggesting the process may have been rigged. But without records of most of the process, it’s difficult to tell whether the grant awards were justified.

By proceeding as if freedom of information laws didn’t exist, CDC managers violated a basic premise of public service — and state government should hold them accountable if it wants to retain the people’s trust.

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