Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Why is the NIH Monitoring Its Employees' Communication with Congress?

We have posted quite a bit (recently here) about conflicts of interest affecting top US National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials. In 2005, the NIH director reinstated strict rules about conflicts of interest. Last month, we noted that allegations of conflict of interest at the Institutes continue, most recently involving the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Dr David Schwartz.

The Associated Press (here via the San Diego Union-Tribune) just reported the case's latest ramifications.

First, Dr Schwartz has temporarily stepped down from his position, pending an investigation:

The NIH is beginning its own review of the management and leadership of the institute, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni announced Monday. The embattled director of the institute, Dr. David Schwartz, is stepping aside for the duration of the review.

Meanwhile, the AP reported that the NIH has seemingly gotten very concerned about communication by its employees with the US Congress.

Employees of one of the National Institutes of Health are being asked to report all contacts with Congress – a request that one lawmaker suspects is an attempt to flush out would-be whistle-blowers.

Managers distributed 'record of congressional inquiry' forms to employees of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, one of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the NIH. At least one of those workers reported being made 'nervous' by the form – and forwarded it to congressional investigators probing allegations of conflicts of interest, excessive spending and other management issues at the institute.

The form asks for details of each telephone call from the offices of members of the House or Senate, including on the information sought.

Asking employees to document such contacts is highly irregular.

Logging and reporting such calls is standard procedure in the congressional affairs offices of federal departments and agencies. But the forms don't appear to be something given out to 'regular' employees, said Sen. Charles Grassley. Their distribution came in the midst of multiple and ongoing investigations by Congress, including by the Iowa Republican's staff. Nor do the forms appear to have been distributed elsewhere within NIH.

'Hopefully, the intent of this form was not to discourage or intimidate NIEHS employees from talking to Congress; but I must admit, the timing is curious,' Grassley wrote Zerhouni in a letter, sent late Monday, seeking details of the circumstances of the form's distribution. It is illegal to deny or interfere with a federal employee's right to provide information to Congress.

The letter and NIH review are the latest salvos in an ongoing series of investigations of the institute. Grassley and other lawmakers have relied on federal whistle-blowers in conducting oversight of the institute.

Previously, those whistle-blowers have told Grassley's staff of employee discussions with institute management 'that left them with the impression that there would be retaliation if it was discovered that they had provided information to among others, congressional investigators,' the lawmaker wrote Zerhouni in a July 11 letter.

This case now seems to combine several elements familiar to readers of Health Care Renewal. Initially, it involved allegations of important conflicts of interest affecting the top leadership of an important health care organization. Now, it also involves allegations about intimidation of those attempting to blow the whistle about these conflicts.

The case now reminds me of arguments that I just made at a meeting convened by the International Council on Human Rights Policy about the relationship between corruption and violations of human rights: people involved in activities that might embarass them if reported in the media may often try to silence those who might try to make such reports. And it further reminds of the slogan favored by FIRE in their campaign for individual rights in education:

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Hat tip: to Effect Measure. And also see this post on Effect Measure (just up).

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