FDA staffers sue agency over surveillance of personal e-mail
Ellen Nakashima and Lisa Rein
January 29, 2012
The Food and Drug Administration secretly monitored the personal e-mail of a group of its own scientists and doctors after they [the scientists - ed.] warned Congress that the agency was approving medical devices that they believed posed unacceptable risks to patients, government documents show.
The surveillance — detailed in e-mails and memos unearthed by six of the scientists and doctors, who filed a lawsuit against the FDA in U.S. District Court in Washington last week — took place over two years as the plaintiffs accessed their personal Gmail accounts from government computers.
While accessing Gmail from government computers was not a wise idea, since all traffic over an institutional PC and network can be monitored, these Gmails were apparently to members of Congress.
Copies of the e-mails show that, starting in January 2009, the FDA intercepted communications with congressional staffers and draft versions of whistleblower complaints complete with editing notes in the margins. The agency also took electronic snapshots of the computer desktops of the FDA employees and reviewed documents they saved on the hard drives of their government computers.
See sample emails at link above.
Information garnered this way eventually contributed to the harassment or dismissal of all six of the FDA employees, the suit alleges. All had worked in an office responsible for reviewing devices for cancer screening and other purposes.
That's very unfortunate.
It will be far more unfortunate if the warnings of the six, as in this whistleblower case, went unheeded, and patients are injured or die as a result. In that case, FDA bureaucrats might have been accessories to those injuries or deaths.
“Who would have thought that they would have the nerve to be monitoring my communications to Congress?” said Robert C. Smith, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, a former radiology professor at Yale and Cornell universities who worked as a device reviewer at the FDA until his contract was not renewed in July 2010. “How dare they?”
I, on the other hand, would have expected it. It would have been far more prudent to send such emails from a private home computer and ISP.
The scientists and doctors denied sharing information improperly. The HHS inspector general’s office, which oversees FDA operations, declined to pursue an investigation, finding no evidence of criminal conduct. It also said that the doctors and scientists had a legal right to air their concerns to Congress or journalists.
FDA officials sought a second time that year to initiate action against the scientists and doctors. “We have obtained new information confirming the existence of information disclosures that undermine the integrity and mission of the FDA and, we believe, may be prohibited by law,” wrote Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, on June 28, 2010.
The inspector general, after consulting with federal prosecutors, declined the second request, as well.
The IG office seemed to find the behavior legal, but FDA bureaucrats apparently did not like non-team players.
The FDA scientists and doctors, all of whom worked for the agency’s Office of Device Evaluation, said they first made internal complaints beginning in 2007 that the agency had approved or was on the verge of approving at least a dozen radiological devices whose effectiveness was not proven and that posed risks to millions of patients. Frustrated, they also brought their concerns to Congress, the White House and the HHS inspector general.
Three of the devices risked missing signs of breast cancer, the scientists and doctors warned, according to documents and interviews. Another risked falsely diagnosing osteoporosis, leading to unnecessary treatments; one ultrasound device could malfunction while monitoring pregnant women in labor, risking harm to the fetus; and several devices for colon cancer screening used such heavy doses of radiation that they risked causing cancer in otherwise healthy people, the FDA scientists and doctors said.
Permit me to wonder if regulatory capture played a role in these decisions.
One might also wonder if complaints about electronic health records or other clinical IT, admitted by FDA to be a medical device "political hot potato" they elected to not regulate, were also involved.
... The first documented FDA interception was of an e-mail dated Jan. 29, 2009, shortly after the letter from Ferry. In it, device reviewer Paul T. Hardy asked a congressional aide, Joanne Royce, for assurances that “it is not a crime to provide information to the Congress about potential misconduct by another Agency employee.”
Royce replied: “[Y]ou and your colleagues have committed no crime. . . . you guys didn’t even provide confidential business information to Congress.”
The only 'crime' was apparently not being a 'team player', which on Healthcare Renewal has been defined as someone who is silent, or silenced, or a co-conspirator regarding managerial mediocrity, malfeasance, or madness.
Hardy, who is among the six employees who filed the suit, was fired in November after a negative performance review; an internal FDA letter obtained in separate litigation quoted managers saying they did not “trust” him. Of the other five scientists and doctors, the suit says two did not have their contracts renewed, two suffered harassment and werepassed over for promotions, and one was fired.
Trust him to do - what, I ask?
Plaintiff's lawyers need to be aware of this event, and I intend to make them aware.
Feb. 13, 2012 addendum:
A link to Darrell Issa's letter to FDA Commissioner Hamburg is here.