Gov’t Office Recommends Pausing Demotion Of Whistleblowing Researcher, Lawyers Say

WASHINGTON - APRIL 11: Department Of Health and Human Services, Hubert H. Humphrey Building on April 11, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
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May 8, 2020 3:39 p.m.

Federal investigators have recommended temporarily reinstating a demoted research director to his former job, pending further investigation of his claim that he was retaliated against for being a whistleblower.

The Office of Special Counsel made the determination on Thursday that there was “sufficient evidence to believe” that Dr. Rick Bright’s demotion had been “retaliatory,” Bright’s lawyers said in a statement shared with TPM.

Until recently, Bright was director of the of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, one of several HHS offices working on COVID-19 response. Bright has alleged that political considerations and cronyism hampered the government’s response to the pandemic.

“OSC further advised that in light of this determination, it would contact the Department of Health and Human Services (‘HHS’) to request that it stay Dr. Bright’s removal as Director of BARDA for 45 days to allow OSC sufficient time to complete its investigation of Bright’s allegations,” Bright’s lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, added.

The New York Times first reported the lawyers’ statement.

Bright acknowledged in a lengthy whistleblower complaint released this week that he provided information to a Reuters reporter about the Trump administration’s effort to widely distribute hydroxychloroquine. President Donald Trump had championed the anti-malarial drug as a potential COVID-19 treatment despite uneven evidence of its effectiveness. (The FDA recently advised against the use of the drug outside of clinical trials and hospitals due to “reports of serious heart rhythm problems” that it caused in patients.)

Bright alleged that Health department officials demoted him to a job at the National Institutes of Health in retaliation for being a whistleblower.

Bright also alleged that HHS leadership, including Bright’s superior Robert Kadlec, had pressured him to award contracts based on political favoritism.

“The OSC has made a threshold determination that HHS 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,” Katz and Banks said. “It has requested that HHS stay Dr. Bright’s removal from BARDA, and we strongly urge the Secretary to agree to this request.”

Health Secretary Alex Azar — one of the officials Bright faulted in his complaint for not taking COVID-19 seriously enough in the early weeks of its spread — can opt not to follow OSC’s recommendation. The Times noted that in that case, the decision on Bright’s future would be sent to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

A spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel declined to “comment on or confirm the status of open investigations.” An HHS spokesperson, in a statement to TPM Tuesday, said that the department was “deeply disappointed” that Bright has “not shown up to work” at the National Institutes of Health job to which he had been transferred.

Bright said in his complaint that he had stopped receiving a paycheck as of April 20, and that he “has not been assigned any responsibilities and duties and remains in
limbo.”

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