Effect Measure

More trouble at NIEHS

A political pundit recently likened the Bush administration to the refrigerator that was never cleaned under the Republican rubber stamp congress. Now that new housekeepers have moved in they are finding lots of gross and moldy half eaten meals in the back. The latest to stink the place up is Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the most public health oriented of all the NIH institutes. Or it used to be, as we noted in an earlier post. Under Director David Schwartz it was on its way to being the kind of harmless agency most congenial to the Bush administration. But the housekeepers have started to look under the bed at NIEHS, too. It’s getting ugly.

The thin end of the wedge was Schwartz’s attempt to privatize the Institute’s flagship scientific publication, Environmental Health Perspectives, EHP. This is the world’s premier environmental health journal and it is an Open Access journal, to boot. It publishes about 100 papers a year out of almost 1000 submissions, so it is highly selective. In the interests of full disclosure I have published there fairly often and also done peer review for them, so I have a stake in what happens at EHP and its reputation. But I think my concern is widely shared in the field of environmental health science. When Schwartz’s plans to privatize EHP became known there was a vigorous and immediate pushback from the scientific community and he was forced to retreat. Last June he announced he had abandoned his plans to privatize the journal. But then he proceeded to outsource all its functions and this is where things got sticky.

NIEHS’ rush to farm out EHP was interrupted earlier this year when ethics officers objected to provisions that would have seemed to favor award of the contract to Duke University Press — because the fact that Duke University was Schwartz’ previous employer created the appearance of conflict-of-interest. One result was that the contracting process was put in the hands of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which presumably would be more independent.

But that independence may be more apparent than real. NIEHS contracting officers briefed the NLM contracting officer as the handoff was made. NIEHS pictures these contacts as innocent ones needed for the transition.

The original “Request for Proposals” (RFP) contained a “geographic restriction” requiring the contractor to be within 30 minutes of NIEHS’ office in Research Triangle Park, NC. That seemed to favor Duke. A new preliminary “Sources Sought Notice” suggests that NIEHS has found new ways to accomplish the same thing — requiring the contractor to be able to “host” the EHP editor and have “ready access to scientific expertise” on NIEHS topics. So in the end, Duke may have a leg up under the new RFP also.

NIEHS and NLM have been in a rush to get the revised RFP out, sources say. NIEHS had been hoping to issue it by now — but there have been several unexplained delays. It may come within a week. But it is not clear how the Kucinich subcommittee request will affect the timing of its ultimate issuance. Whenever it is issued, sources say NIEHS is planning to give bidders a very short time period to respond (as short as two weeks). That again could favor Duke, which has already been involved for some time in working up a proposal — and discourage entry of new competitors into the arena. (Society of Environmental Journalists, Tip Sheet)

Understand that EHP has been straightforward in publishing important scientific articles on important environmental pollutants and most recently on climate change. Not the stuff to make the Bush administration and their allies in Congress feel warm and fuzzy toward it. Many think this is the real motive behind Schwartz’s neutering job on the journal.

But now the wheels are starting to coming off the truck. Schwartz has shown himself unreliable in many ways, not the least of which is doing things he says he won’t and not doing things he says he will. He is also gutting EHPs budget, despite claims of solid support. The former budget of $3 million is being slashed to $500,000, which the Tip Sheet wryly notes is half of what he spent to remodel his NIEHS Office on his arrival (after it had just been remodeled).

Now Congress is in on the act, with Representative Dennis Kucinich’s Oversight Subcommittee (part of Henry Waxman’s Oversight Committee) asking for many documents related to the EHP affair and Schwartz’s own conduct as Director:

Among the things the subcommittee is asking Schwartz for by an April 20, 2007, deadline are all documents and communications relating to the privatization or outsourcing of EHP or cuts to its budget. But the panel is also asking for documents on spending by Schwartz personally or the budget of the director’s office, all communications about ethics rules, any ethics waivers Schwartz may have received, financial disclosure forms, and any payments from, consulting arrangement with, or financial interest in outside organizations that might have a stake in NIEHS’ work.

Whether the subcommittee’s request will bring all those documents remains to be seen — along with whether or not the documents will include any evidence of impropriety. But the request is hardly a blind fishing expedition. Unsubstantiated rumors of alleged infractions or waivers of ethics rules have been circulating for months. (SEJ Tip Sheet)

What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive suck up to the Bush administration.

Comments

  1. #1 M. Randolph Kruger
    April 12, 2007

    Not much fight from me Revere when someone quits spending money, unless its on solid oak desks. But you probably werent aware that this happens in nearly every 2nd election. Clintons appointee here in Memphis gotcha on this one when out of his budget to “remodel” the VA hospital of 23 million, 2 million went to her office renovation. She cited, “floor stressing due to higher weight.” That weight was for a desk that weighed a whopping 2900 pounds and had to be lifted into the freshly removed side of the building. Once in, they wrapped it in plastic and then built the office around it. The desk was 14,000 bucks, 4,000 to put it in, then the rest of the 2 mil was used to put in solid oak paneling (none of that cheap stuff), fix the wall, artwork, (does a Ming vase count as artwork or treasure?), imported tile from Italy to line the private shower and bath. You get the idea. This isnt anything new, its business as usual and it sucks. You are talking about a publication, I am talking that it would have gone a long way to renovations.

    Same wavelength though.

  2. #2 Dr Edo McGowan
    April 15, 2007

    There is nothing new in any of this, it’s just taxpayer funny-money, there to be spent and what are taxpayers for anyway? This type of behavior is shot-through this government, both domestically and overseas. The focus, however, should be on the dilution of the science for political purposes. That breeds ignorance, and next to stupidity, there is nothing more costly.

  3. #3 Chicago
    June 28, 2007

    A bit more than fancy desks.

    Probe Finds NIH Official Violated Government Regulations

    By Rick Weiss
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, June 27, 2007; A03

    A high-powered institute director at the National Institutes of Health disregarded conflict-of-interest guidelines by making decisions affecting the university where he was a faculty member, broke government spending rules, and raised concerns with his growing involvement as an expert witness in legal cases, according to sources within NIH and Congress and hundreds of pages of confidential documents.

    David Schwartz, a physician and researcher recruited from Duke University to great fanfare in 2005 as chief of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, was found to have spent modest amounts of institute money for personal purposes but was cleared of other allegations of wrongdoing in a recent internal NIH ethics review obtained by The Washington Post.

    In a telephone interview yesterday, Schwartz said he made mistakes, which he blamed on “misunderstandings” about institute rules and “poor communication,” for which he said he takes “full responsibility.”

    Schwartz denied any deception on his part, however, and said he has taken corrective actions to prevent future problems.

    But several members of Congress have demanded more details, saying they have evidence that the NIH report is incomplete. And scores of e-mails reviewed by The Post confirm that ethics officials in NIH and in the Health and Human Services secretary’s office have grown increasingly frustrated with Schwartz’s repeated insensitivity to conflict-of-interest rules.

    In one exchange, when officials learned that Schwartz had not fully divested all his biotechnology and drug company stocks as required, Schwartz wrote to the NIH ethics office that the divestiture “seems totally unreasonable. . . . I’m simply not willing to limit my investments in this way.”

    The ethics officer, who later complained that she had “lost patience . . . a long time ago” with Schwartz, responded, “It may appear to be unreasonable, but it is the law.”

    He subsequently sold the stocks.

    Also raising alarms were Schwartz’s growing commitments to give expert testimony in multimillion-dollar asbestos injury cases — of concern because he might be perceived as profiting personally from his status as head of the nation’s premier environmental toxicology program.

    Schwartz brought more than a dozen Duke researchers to his federal lab, despite a requirement that he recuse himself from matters involving Duke. He also overspent his lab budget by millions of dollars. Those actions led agency officials to take the extremely unusual step of banning Schwartz from his own lab for nearly three months, putting it into receivership and sending the researchers back to Duke in what one official called a “de-Duking” process.

    Raynard S. Kington, NIH’s deputy administrator and top ethics officer, attributed the problems to a “misunderstanding” when Schwartz was hired as to the limits he would have in his new job.

    The lab was recently placed under the budgetary control of another NIH institute to prevent further problems, Kington said.

    And in March, Schwartz — who had retained his faculty status at Duke, a few miles from the institute’s headquarters in Research Triangle Park, N.C. — separated himself from the university.

    “There is now a clear, bright line” between Schwartz’s outside activities, lab responsibilities and responsibilities as NIEHS director, Kington said.

    Schwartz said he earned about $150,000 from asbestos-related expert testimony and clinical exams from mid-2005 through fiscal 2006. But Schwartz emphasized that he had contracted with the law firm before coming to NIH.

    Government ethics officials, however, were clearly concerned that lawyers could exploit the clout that came with Schwartz’s new position at NIH.

    “More than any other type of outside activity (writing, speaking, even consulting), the expert witness can lead to trading on the reputation of the NIH . . . it’s almost inevitable,” an ethics adviser wrote in an e-mail regarding Schwartz.

    Kington e-mailed Schwartz that lawyers in HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt’s office “had major concerns about your doing these activities.” He continued, “I pushed back, and they eventually deferred to my call.”

    The internal NIH review found that Schwartz wrongly used almost $2,000 in government funds to frame his high school diploma and various photographs for his office, and for expenses relating to a limousine service. The report did acknowledge that his staff gave him bad advice on those matters.

    Schwartz said he reimbursed the government, has stopped giving expert testimony and is committed to strengthening the institute.

    “I really have the best interests of people who are being exposed and w

  4. #4 M. Randolph Kruger
    June 28, 2007

    A quick comment. The ethics officer said, “its the law”. That is a mis-statement. It is in fact a rule and generally speaking you cant go to jail for violating ethics rules, but you can be censured and with enough behind it-removed. If though he was trading stocks that he owned prior to or after his appointment then thats an SEC problem. Send the 2000 back Schwartz with a letter of apology. You are smart, use your head. Dont be a putz!

  5. #5 anon
    October 7, 2008

    Actually if it’s part of his contract that he not possess these stocks, then he’d be in breach, which is a LAW violation.
    But let the lawyers pick words.
    We’re talking ethics here. If he had a problem with selling his stocks, he should have made it clear prior to accepting the position.
    this is typical good old boy politics. The rules are for the little people.

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