Federal Watchdog Says Coronavirus Whistle-Blower Should Be Reinstated as It Investigates

WASHINGTON — A federal investigative office has found “reasonable grounds to believe” that the Trump administration was retaliating against a whistle-blower, Dr. Rick Bright, when he was ousted from a government research agency combating the coronavirus — and said he should be reinstated for 45 days while it investigates, his lawyers said Friday.

The lawyers, Debra S. Katz and Lisa J. Banks, said in a statement that they were notified late Thursday afternoon that the Office of Special Counsel, which protects whistle-blowers, had “made a threshold determination” that the Department of Health and Human Services “violated the Whistleblower Protection Act by removing Dr. Bright from his position because he made protected disclosures in the best interest of the American public.”

The finding comes just days after the lawyers filed a whistle-blower complaint saying that Dr. Bright’s removal last month as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority was payback. They said Dr. Bright, who was reassigned to a narrower job at the National Institutes of Health, had tried to expose “cronyism” and corruption at the Department of Health and Human Services while pressing for a more robust coronavirus response and opposing the stockpiling of antimalaria drugs championed by President Trump.

It will now be up to the secretary of health and human services, Alex M. Azar II, to decide whether to send Dr. Bright back to BARDA during the Office of Special Counsel inquiry.

If Mr. Azar refuses, Dr. Bright’s complaint would ordinarily be sent to the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent quasi-federal agency charged with deciding claims of whistle-blower reprisal. But the Senate has not confirmed Mr. Trump’s nominees to the board, leaving it with no members. A “frequently asked questions” document about the lack of members has been removed from the board’s website.

“Dr. Bright should not be denied the right to have his complaint investigated fully and fairly before he is formally transferred to N.I.H. — a move that will harm not only him, but the country as well,” the lawyers’ statement said. “This country is in an unprecedented health crisis and needs the expertise of Dr. Bright to lead the nation’s efforts to combat Covid-19. A spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department, Caitlin Oakley, declined to say what Mr. Azar would do.

“This is a personnel matter that is currently under review,” she said. “However, H.H.S. strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright.”

Ms. Banks and Ms. Katz said it was “a common occurrence” for agencies to heed the Office of Special Counsel’s requests to stay personnel actions when it finds evidence that retaliation occurred. In its budget request to Congress for the 2021 fiscal year, the office reported negotiating 31 stays with federal agencies in the last year and said it had “achieved 27 disciplinary actions, upholding accountability and sending a clear message” that the government does not tolerate whistle-blower reprisals.

Dr. Bright is scheduled to testify next week before a House panel led by Representative Anna G. Eshoo, Democrat of California, who helped create BARDA and has called for an investigation into his removal. Ms. Eshoo has said she would also like to hear from Dr. Robert P. Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, and Mr. Azar.

The special counsel’s finding is a first step but a victory nonetheless for Dr. Bright, who was transferred to N.I.H., he has said, after he tried to put controls on the use of a malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, that Mr. Trump had heralded as a treatment for the coronavirus but was unproven for that use.

In his 89-page complaint, Dr. Bright said his boss at the Health and Human Services Department, Dr. Kadlec, repeatedly pressured him to steer millions of dollars’ worth of contracts to the clients of a well-connected consultant. He also described what he called “opposition” from department superiors — including Mr. Azar — when he pushed as early as January for the necessary resources to develop drugs and vaccines to counter the emerging coronavirus pandemic.

John Clerici, the health care consultant singled out, has said the allegations are baseless. Dr. Kadlec and Mr. Azar have not responded directly, though Mr. Trump has called Dr. Bright “disgruntled.”

On Tuesday, after Dr. Bright’s complaint was filed, Ms. Oakley, the spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that Dr. Bright had been “transferred to N.I.H. to work on diagnostics testing — critical to combating Covid-19 — where he has been entrusted to spend upward of $1 billion to advance that effort.”

“We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor,” she added.

Dr. Bright, an influenza expert, ran BARDA for nearly four years. The tiny agency, created in 2006 as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, teams up with industry in developing “medical countermeasures” that can be stockpiled by the federal government to combat biological or chemical attacks and pandemic threats.

BARDA has spent billions of dollars on contracts with dozens of different suppliers, including major pharmaceutical companies and smaller biotechnology firms. In February, it awarded $456 million to Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a part of Johnson & Johnson, to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

In a brief statement when the whistle-blower complaint was filed, Dr. Bright said the last several years of working under Dr. Kadlec, who became his boss after Mr. Trump became president, had been “beyond challenging.”

“Time after time, I was pressured to ignore or dismiss expert scientific recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections,” Dr. Bright said.

The tensions between the two culminated last month when Dr. Bright, alarmed at the administration’s push to make the malaria drug widely available, leaked emails to a reporter for Reuters. Dr. Bright was removed in days.

“I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit,” he said in a statement at that time. “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way.”

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