Hundreds of thousands Meant for Public Well being Threats Have been Diverted Elsewhere, Watchdog Says
WASHINGTON – A federal guard has determined that the biomedical advanced research and development agency, which attracted national attention last year when the Trump administration fired its director, has been using as a “slush fund” to cover expenses for 10 years unrelated to their funding is a core task in the fight against health threats such as Ebola, Zika and the coronavirus.
The 223-page report, issued Wednesday by the Office of Special Counsel, found that the Department of Health and Human Services spent millions of taxpayers’ money earmarked for BARDA to fund vaccine research and pandemic preparedness into other government activities diverted and failed to inform Congress – a possible violation of federal law.
Unrelated activities included office furniture removal, administrative expenses, news subscriptions, legal services, and the salaries of other department employees. According to the investigators, the diversion of funds was so widespread that the employees had a name for it: the “Bank of BARDA”.
The report focuses on the actions of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the Department of Health official who oversees and is responsible for the budget of BARDA. The assistant secretary is responsible for leading the federal response to pandemic threats such as the novel coronavirus. Its youngest resident was Dr. Robert Kadlec; President Biden has not named a successor.
“I am deeply concerned about the apparent misuse of millions of dollars by ASPR in funding dedicated to public health emergencies as our country is currently facing the Covid-19 pandemic,” wrote Henry J. Kerner , the special adviser, in a letter to Mr. Biden, using the acronym for Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
“Equally worrying,” added Kerner, “is how widespread and well-known the practice has appeared to be for nearly a decade.”
The report does not specifically state how much money has been misused. But around $ 25 million was taken from BARDA programs and made available to the assistant secretary’s office only in fiscal 2019. For fiscal years 2007 through 2016, the assistant secretary did not record any administrative expenses of $ 517.8 million, according to the report.
It is also suggested that a Senator, Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, who drafted the legislation that created BARDA and is believed to be its supporter in Congress, has been embroiled in internal funding disputes. The whistleblower informed investigators that at the behest of Mr Burr and his “pet project”, a “restrictive wording” had been added to the 2016 budget – an obvious reference to BARDA.
A spokesman for the senator had no comment.
BARDA was founded by the Congress in 2006. Its mission is to fund novel research into vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and other “medical countermeasures” to combat natural and biological defense threats. It was relatively dark until April when Dr. Kadlec his director, Dr. Rick Bright, dismissed.
Dr. Bright said at the time that he was removed from his post and reassigned to a closer job at the National Institutes of Health after pushing for a rigorous review of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that President Donald J. Trump adopted as a coronavirus treatment, The The government had “put politics and cronyism before science”.
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Days later, he filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal surveillance agency. He has since left the federal government and most recently advised Mr Biden on the coronavirus during the transition.
However, the report released on Wednesday is not an answer to Dr. Bright. Rather, it covers both the Obama and Trump administrations and emerged from an investigation into a complaint by an unnamed whistleblower in 2018, the allegations of which were primarily Dr. Kadlec’s predecessor Dr. Nicole Lurie concerned. The whistleblower accused Dr. Lurie, “reported false information to Congress” in her monthly reports to lawyers.
Both Dr. Kadlec and Dr. Lurie have denied wrongdoing. In a brief interview on Wednesday, Dr. Lurie, she was not interviewed for the investigation. The results were previously reported by the Washington Post.
“We left the country stronger than we found it, including a pandemic playbook,” said Dr. Lurie about her time as head of the agency. “All spending was routinely made and approved through multiple layers of strict budget processes. No expenditure was made unilaterally. “
In a statement, Mr. Kerner urged Congress and the Health Department “to take immediate action to ensure that public health emergency funding can no longer be used as a slush fund for unrelated expenses.”
The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement it would review how the deputy secretary allocated money in fiscal 2015-2019 to see if any law had been breached.
A lawyer for Dr. Bright, Debra S. Katz, described the results as “outrage”. While the special adviser said last spring that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that the removal of Dr. Bright was seeking repayment and was demanding his reinstatement, Ms. Katz said the investigation into his complaint is slow because the Trump administration has not cooperated. This complaint focused on Dr. Kadlec.
“These people used BARDA as their own piggy bank – both to manage contracts with their pals and to carry out any special projects they wanted to detriment the public health and safety of Americans,” she said.