By Lindsay Tice
In 2012, the deputy director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention told state employees to destroy public documents.
She called them “working documents” and said she routinely got rid of such paperwork. She wanted to destroy these documents as “version control,” concerned, she said, that people would get confused. The documents included score charts and surveys that showed just how Maine’s health department decided which public health groups would get a total of $4.7 million in grants.
It took a Maine Human Rights Commission harassment complaint, a state probe, six subpoenas, six hours of questioning of current and former CDC officials by a legislative committee, and dozens of Sun Journal articles and Freedom of Access Act requests to bring the situation to light:
Documents were being destroyed and if they were requested, CDC officials often created new ones as if they were the originals. These practices — particularly the shredding of documents which may have been required by law to be preserved for public inspection — galled lawmakers and members of the public. It was wrong to do this, they said. It shouldn’t have been done and it could have violated Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
But — Devil’s advocate here — why are these documents so important? After all, old paperwork is trashed, recycled and shredded all the time in private life. And, as some state workers pointed out, the state doesn’t have the electronic or physical capacity to keep every note, memo, email, chart or graph created in the course of everyday business. So why should the shredding of public documents be so concerning? Because the casual destruction of public documents allows secrets to flourish.
It was discovered that CDC officials changed, with no notice, the scoring criteria for the public health groups vying for the grant money. Money eventually went to a group that CDC leaders favored — one that had originally scored too low to get the funding. A single score sheet would have shown this change. But that particular score sheet had gone missing.
Only with the Maine Human Rights Commission’s complaint, the state probe, hours of questioning by legislators and the work of the Sun Journal was the existence of the sheet discovered. While it has yet to be determined what exactly happened to this document — shredded, hidden, etc. — its disappearance speaks to the importance of keeping public records accessible.
Without that document, it took two years for this truth to be discovered. Two. Years. What else might have happened in those two years? Did anyone else get something they shouldn’t have — taxpayer money, a contract, preferential treatment — just because someone at the CDC liked them? We may never know. We can’t even be certain that the shredding has stopped. Lawmakers are still scrambling to ensure that the state’s public documents are properly maintained.
In the meantime, there has been no public penalty or sanction for the CDC officials at the heart of the document-shredding probe. Members of the public have said they’ve lost their trust in government. They’re now suspicious of those safeguarding the health of Maine residents.
That’s what happens when secrets flourish.
Lindsay is a reporter for the Sun Journal. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.