(CN) — The federal watchdog investigating Dr. Rick Bright’s whistleblower complaint alleging political cronyism in the White House’s pandemic response urged the government on Friday to restore the infectious disease expert to the agency developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Attorneys who filed Bright’s complaint against Health and Human Services announced the development, but representatives for the Office of Special Counsel declined to comment.
“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,” Bright’s attorneys Debra Katz and Lisa Banks wrote.
Katz and Banks said the head of HHS should accept the watchdog’s request to “stay Dr. Bright’s removal from BARDA.”
Bright headed BARDA, short for Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, before butting heads with the political leadership of HHS.
As noted in the doctor’s 57-page complaint Tuesday, the Trump administration planted the seeds of corruption within the public health agency years before the world would experience the ravages of Covid-19.
Bright claims that his immediate supervisor, Assistant Secretary for Response and Preparedness Robert Kadlec, allowed industry consultant John Clerici to peddle a contract based on connections to the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in 2017.
After the pandemic struck, Kushner became the head of what has become known as a shadow coronavirus task force, and Bright claims that the White House started pressuring public health officials to cut corners to keep New York and New Jersey “flooded” with antimalaria pills that could enrich a political donor.
Four days after Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer,” Bright allegedly received a directive from Bob Charrow, general counsel of U.S. Health and Human Services, for BARDA to establish a protocol that would expand access to chloroquines beyond the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization for its use against Covid-19.
Central to this effort was a database developed by Oracle, whose co-founder Larry Ellison is a top Trump donor.
Bright’s legal team emphasized that this threshold finding by the federal watchdog is a first step in the process.
“It is a common occurrence for agencies to agree to OSC’s request to stay personnel actions when evidence exists, as it does here, that retaliation occurred,” his attorneys say. “In the last fiscal year, OSC obtained 31 stays from agencies through negotiation and it in 2018, it obtained 47 stays. It obtained 45 stays in 2017.”
As the process could be lengthy, Bright’s attorneys want their client back at BARDA, fighting the virus, instead of being demoted to a more modest position within the National Institutes of Health.
“Dr. Bright should not be denied the right to have his complaint investigated fully and fairly before he is formally transferred to NIH — a move that will harm not only him, but the country as well,” the attorneys wrote. “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.”
Secretary Alex Azar, whom Bright accuses of indifference and hostility toward his urgent warnings about the pandemic, will decide whether to temporarily reinstate the doctor to his former position as the investigation proceeds.
“We hope the secretary will grant the special counsel’s request and allow Dr. Bright, one of nation’s leading vaccine scientists, to return to his position leading BARDA and serving his country,” Bright’s attorneys conclude.
HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley called the watchdog’s recommendation a personnel matter under review.
“However, HHS strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright,” Oakley added.