A whistleblower complaint has led to an investigation of federal officials’ misappropriation of funds earmarked for biomedical research, finding that hundreds of millions of dollars were misused over the past decade. The Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) conducted the investigation with oversight from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) after an anonymous whistleblower brought the matter to their attention.
The money was originally Congressionally designated for use by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in conducting research, and developing vaccines and treatments. The whistleblower complaint alleges that between 2010 and 2019, officials in the HHS office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) used money that was earmarked for research and development for miscellaneous purposes, such as paying the salaries of workers in other departments. In one case, the report alleges that an unspecified amount of BARDA funds were spent on moving office furniture.
Congress designated these funds to be used “in responding to public health emergencies like Ebola, Zika, and other outbreaks.” The report alleging massive misappropriation comes at a particularly damning time, as the U.S. struggles with the COVID-19 crisis, the most dangerous public health crisis in over a century. Instead of being used to prepare for the next catastrophe, the inspector general found that misappropriation was widespread, with some of the staff to be referring to BARDA as “the bank of BARDA.”
While the report does not specify a total amount of misused money, it is expected to be in the millions of dollars. The inspector general highlighted that the ASPR did not provide adequate information to Congress on how the $517 million spent on “management and administrative” costs was actually used, according to a Wall Street Journal article.
In a letter to President Biden, Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote that “as recently as [fiscal year] 2019—approximately $25 to $26 million was “taken from the BARDA ARD (Advanced Research and Development) funding stream and [improperly] provided to ASPR.”” In his January 27 letter, Kerner reiterated many of the findings of the report before praising the risks that the whistleblower took to bring this misuse to light: “The whistleblower declined to comment on the report, but I commend the whistleblower for coming forward to bring this critical issue to OSC’s attention.”