Commentary: It’s not about politics. It’s about our system of checks and balances

Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew refused last month to share records with the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, which voted unanimously to undertake a comprehensive review of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services after several child deaths.

We’ve seen this pattern, which attempts to obstruct the Legislature’s oversight responsibility, unfortunately repeated over the years, regardless of who is in office. The legislative branch and its Government Oversight Committee have a well-defined statutory authority to oversee the co-equal executive branch. It must be consistently and firmly upheld, or its essential role will be eroded.

It is our job, for instance, to ensure that financial appropriations (taxpayer monies) are spent in the manner we have prescribed. When it comes to how the government operates, we also ensure state programs perform the functions they’re supposed to – and get the results we expect – through our Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The bipartisan Government Oversight Committee members are the recipients of OPEGA’s reporting system. As elected legislative officials defined specifically by statute, our function is clear, and the review of confidential records is sometimes necessary to perform this critical function.

The need for greater oversight prompted the committee’s request for the records of four children who died last year, at least one of whom was from a family that had prior contact with OCFS. Lambrew said she based her decision partly on Maine Assistant Attorney General Ariel Gannon’s disputable interpretation of the statute governing these records. In her opinion to DHHS, Gannon said that Government Oversight Committee members were not entitled to the records.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Gannon referenced a particular statute that limits information sharing with legislative committees and the Legislative Council in general, but the Government Oversight Committee draws its unique authority from Chapter 21, which gives this investigative committee broad powers, including the right to gain otherwise nonpublic information; to examine witnesses; to hold hearings; to administer oaths; to issue subpoenas, and to hold in contempt those who obstruct our process.

In fact, Title 22 mandates disclosure of records of the department’s child protective activities to “an appropriate … legislative official with responsibility for child protective services.” The Government Oversight Committee is exactly that.

While a full review of OCFS is critically imperative given its recent heartbreaking record, the current disagreement ultimately boils down to the Legislature’s duty to uphold a system of checks and balances over executive bureaucracy. Plain and simple.

Instead, we’re being told by Lambrew that state legislators cannot be trusted with sensitive information because Government Oversight Committee members may – intentionally or not – disseminate it. When one thinks of the numerous caseworkers, officials, lawyers and staff spread throughout DHHS, law enforcement agencies and the Attorney General’s Office who already have this access, how can a handful of elected leaders be any less trustworthy?

What would be the outcome if, at the federal level, members of the Foreign Intelligence Committee were not allowed access to reports on the CIA, the very agency they’re charged with overseeing? Same with the Justice or Defense departments? It would violate the very tenets of the checks and balances enshrined by the U.S. Constitution.

An executive branch pushing back against the legislative branch’s oversight is nothing new. We see it happen at the federal level, as it likely happens in every state’s government. But in this case, as we examine OCFS and the agency’s involvement and actions surrounding the record 29 child deaths that occurred last year, now is not the time to build silos – even if the information would cast DHHS in a negative light. The people of Maine expect us to look behind the scenes and work together to find solutions.

Our system of government was thoughtfully designed to provide checks and balances for such a moment as this. It is time for the legislative branch, once again, to assert its authority and equal role in our government.

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