Ousted whistleblower files complaint alleging he was pressured to give contract to friend of Kushner

"I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have"

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published May 6, 2020 12:41PM (EDT)

White House adviser Jared Kushner (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)
White House adviser Jared Kushner (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

A doctor ousted as the director of a federal agency working to develop a coronavirus vaccine filed a whistleblower complaint Tuesday accusing the Trump administration of corruption.

Dr. Rick Bright, former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), alleged last month that he was removed and reassigned to a lower role after he pushed back on political pressure to approve hydroxychloroquine as a potential coronavirus treatment. President Donald Trump repeatedly touted the drug, though he largely stopped mentioning it after recent studies cast doubt that it is effective against the virus.

Bright told reporters Tuesday about the pushback, which he described as "alarming."

"I witnessed government leadership rushing blindly into a potentially dangerous situation by bringing in a non-FDA approved chloroquine from Pakistan and India, from facilities that had never been approved by the FDA," he said, according to the Associated Press. "Their eagerness to push blindly forward without sufficient data to put this drug into the hands of Americans was alarming to me and my fellow scientists."

Bright filed a whistleblower complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, calling for his job back and an investigation into his claims. He alleged that his warnings about shortages of medical supplies were met with "indifference which then developed into hostility," and his warnings about hydroxychloroquine "rankled those in the administration who wished to continue to push this false narrative."

The complaint also alleged that officials gave contracts to "companies with political connections to the administration," including a company linked to Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. Bright said he was pushed out because of his "efforts to prioritize science and safety over political expediency."

Bright accused officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of overruling health experts to award contracts to companies represented by lobbyist John Clerici. His complaint claimed that Clerici possessed "inappropriate and possibly illegal communications" with top health officials.

Bright also called for an inspector general investigation "to help break up the 'cottage industry' of marketing consultants and political influence into these contracts" in his complaint.

"I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government," Bright told reporters.

The doctor said he repeatedly clashed with Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary of health for preparedness and response. Those clashes intensified after Bright leaked information about the dispute over hydroxychloroquine to a Reuters reporter.

Debra Katz, an attorney for Bright, told The New York Times that the doctor had a "moral obligation" to alert the public that the administration was pushing to ramp up unproven drugs.

Caitlin Oakley, a spokeswoman at HHS, did not respond to the Bright's claims. However, she said the doctor had not shown up to his new assignment, which The Times reported was a "new 'Shark Tank'-style program to develop coronavirus treatments."

"Dr. Bright was 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," she told the outlet. "We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor."

But Katz said Bright now "has no role" in the administration and has not received his last paycheck. A spokesperson added that Bright "has been on sick leave due to hypertension caused by this current situation."

Clerici "unequivocally" denied any wrongdoing in a statement to The Times.

"It's sad that during a pandemic, Dr. Bright and his team have chosen to distract people like Dr. Kadlec, who are critical to the response, with politically motivated allegations," he said. "The record is clear that his allegations are false and will be proven so."

Bright alleged that Clerici unsuccessfully pushed for a contract extension for a company run by a person who is "friends with Jared." Clerici denied this ever happened.

"Time after time, I was pressured to ignore or dismiss expert scientific recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections," Bright said. "In other words, I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told MSNBC that Bright was expected to testify to a  committee in the lower chamber next week.

"That will happen, I believe, next week to bring before Congress the testimony of Dr. Bright. It's very damaging," she said. "But you know, the thing is is that this points to the larger issue: Where are the ethics in all of this?"

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Coronavirus Covid-19 Donald Trump Hydroxychloroquine Jared Kushner Nancy Pelosi Politics Rick Bright