- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Gov. Paul LePage pledged to make his administration one of the most transparent in history when he ran for office, but critics say recent revelations that members of his administration destroyed state documents and may have used text messages to evade the state’s open records law suggest that he’s falling far short of that goal.

State officials admitted in a public hearing last week that the Maine’s Center for Disease Control destroyed documents related to the selection criteria for distributing $4.7 million in health grants.

LePage officials say it’s an isolated incident that doesn’t reflect a lack of transparency in the administration. But open government advocates say the details spark concerns of a potentially larger problem while LePage’s political opponents say it contradicts his promise of open government.

Those actions “certainly doesn’t match the rhetoric,” said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, which has requested documents from LePage’s office to try to determine whether he knew about the manipulation of the selection criteria. “It was a nice talking point when it happened but it certainly hasn’t been the reality,” he said.

Maine CDC Deputy Director Christine Zukas told the Government Oversight Committee on Friday that she destroyed the working drafts of documents regarding the Healthy Maine Partnership program to avoid confusion and that the agency’s policy was unclear on what to do with them. But Sharon Leahy-Lind, the former Maine CDC employee who filed the federal lawsuit against the agency, said she was ordered to destroy the documents that showed changes in the grant selection criteria because a newspaper filed a request under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

Leahy-Lind also told the committee that she was told to use her own cellphone to send text messages for state business to skirt open records requests, raising concerns that other state employees may be as well. Other CDC officials, however, told the committee they’ve never been told to do so.

Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, said the administration fulfills open records requests almost on a daily basis, even though the administration is getting more requests than the past three administrations combined. He also pointed to initiatives the governor launched, including a website that provides public access to government finances.

“We’ve been incredibly transparent,” he said. “Those incidents are really an anomaly and something we would never approve of.”

On Sunday, LePage called the CDC investigation a “political game.”

“Democrats are making hay with nothing,” he told WGME-TV. “When I became governor there was a shredder in my office and the basket was full, so it’s not something new.”

But open government advocates worry that the document shredding could point to a larger problem in Maine government.

“Could it possibly be the tip of the iceberg? How would we ever find that out?” said Suzanne Goucher, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. “I don’t think it’s just the LePage administration, I think it’s any government. How can you keep tabs on things to make sure that records are being kept as they should be?”

Grant said the CDC revelation is another example of LePage’s adversarial attitude toward the media since taking office. Last summer, LePage officials briefly stopped commenting to three of the state’s newspapers, complaining of unfairly treatment.

LePage once said he avoided taking notes so that they don’t show up in records requests, saying reporters “can’t FOAA my brain,” according to Mal Leary, managing editor of the Maine Capitol Connection with the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

“Transparency is about not just sharing information when you’re asked,” said Democratic Sen. Emily Cain, co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee. “It’s about making the public’s right to know a priority all the time. That definitely has not been the policy of this administration.”

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