Top officials at the state health department's lab wrongly orchestrated the widespread destruction of blood test records for lead-poisoned children, even as they knew the documents were being sought by the children's attorneys through court subpoenas or public information requests, according to a report released Friday by the agency's chief investigator.
The report, by Inspector General Thomas V. Russell, portrays the state lab as a place where supervisors felt overwhelmed and badly understaffed, and where the steady requests for blood results submitted by plaintiffs' lawyers fed a growing resentment that eventually prompted the shredding and erasing of records.
While years' worth of paper records were inappropriately shredded earlier this year, the lasting damage appears to be minimal, according to state officials, thanks to computer technicians who managed to recover key information contained in electronic files that had been deleted.
But Russell's report says that, given the outstanding requests, lab supervisors had no legal right to destroy the records simply for the sake of alleviating their workload.
Russell said he will refer the case to the criminal division of the attorney general's office, as required by a standing executive order. Steve Ruckman, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, had no comment on the case but noted that such referrals are common.
Dr. John DeBoy, former director of the state lab, and his deputy, Michael J. Wajda, had been told by lab colleagues about a "significant backlog of subpoenas and medical record requests" in December and early January — before Wajda ordered the destruction of records with DeBoy's consent, Russell found.
When it began, Wajda joined in, the report says, working with another employee to hoist boxes of records into a bin for shredding.
Health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein, who took over the agency in January, called the records' destruction "a regrettable incident" but added: "It's an important opportunity for the lab to move forward and maintain its trajectory as a terrific public health lab. The report indicates this was a traumatic episode for the lab. We want to be able to put this behind us."
He emphasized Friday that technicians recovered all important electronic data — information that plaintiffs' lawyers consider crucial to pursuing lawsuits seeking damages on behalf of poisoned children and their families.
DeBoy and Wajda were put on administrative leave after Sharfstein learned of the records' destruction in early March and ordered an immediate halt. The two have since retired.
Both lab officials denied to investigators that they knew they were ordering the destruction of records under subpoena, and DeBoy has maintained he was acting on legal guidance he received last summer from a state lawyer.
Wajda could not be reached for comment Friday. DeBoy's lawyer, Steven H. Levin, called the report's findings "irresponsible and without merit," pointing to his client's assertion that he was unaware of any subpoena backlog by the time the disposal began in January.
Russell, inspector general for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, concluded differently after interviewing staff members and reviewing emails. Several employees involved in handling subpoena requests told investigators about "detailed conversations and meetings in early January of 2011 in which the subject of shredding documents under subpoena was discussed."
Two employees said they disagreed with disposing of the records and refused to sign off on letters falsely indicating that the lab did not have the records being sought.
Wajda ordered employees to move paper records from the fifth floor to the first floor, "so they would be close to the shredding room," the report says. "Wajda and one other employee," it continues, "actually dumped the records into totes or bins" used by a contractor to collect documents for on-site shredding. This occurred between mid-January and late February, the report says.
Investigators said they also uncovered orders to erase electronic records. On Jan. 13, Wajda, "with Dr. DeBoy's approval," instructed an information technology employee at the lab to destroy an electronic copy of lab results. The employee complied only after obtaining a written directive from Wajda.
Doctors and health clinics in Maryland have been required since the 1980s to provide the state health department with results of tests showing children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause lasting learning and behavioral problems even in small doses.
The department has maintained those test results for years and provided them on request to individuals who had been tested, their parents or their lawyers.