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Vaccine Meeting, Merck Donation Coincide

By LIZ AUSTIN PETERSON
The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 21, 2007; 10:56 PM

AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff met with key aides about a new vaccine to prevent cervical cancer on the same day its manufacturer donated money to his campaign, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

Texas became the first state to require the vaccine against human papillomavirus earlier this month when Perry issued an executive order requiring it for girls entering sixth grade. Lawmakers are considering overriding the measure.

A calendar for chief of staff Deirdre Delisi obtained under Texas' open records laws shows she met with the governor's budget director and three members of his office for an "HPV Vaccine for Children Briefing" on Oct. 16. That same day, Merck & Co.'s political action committee donated $5,000 to Perry and a total of $5,000 to eight state lawmakers.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said the timing of the meeting and the donation was a coincidence. "There was no discussion of any kind of mandates," Black said.

The documents obtained Wednesday by The AP provide new detail about the relationship between the governor's office and Merck, which makes the only HPV vaccine on the market.

Perry's mandate has inflamed conservatives, who say it contradicts Texas' abstinence-only sexual education policies and intrudes too far into families' lives. Though there is a provision in state law that allows parents to opt out of the vaccine, opponents say the shots are too new and too costly to force on young girls.

Merck had waged a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to get state legislatures to require 11- and 12-year-old girls to get the three-dose vaccine against the virus that can cause cervical cancer as a requirement for school attendance. But it announced Tuesday it was suspending those efforts after its motives were questioned. The New Jersey company stands to make billions if Gardasil is required nationwide.

Critics had previously questioned Perry's ties to the company. Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff and Delisi's predecessor, lobbies for Merck. And the governor accepted a total of $6,000 from Merck during his re-election campaign, including $1,000 in December 2005.

According to Delisi's calendar, she met with Toomey three times in the six months before the order was issued. One meeting happened in August, on the same day two other Perry staffers met with a different Merck lobbyist for a "Merck HPV Vaccine update." The other meetings came just after the November election and just before the legislative session began in January.

Black initially said he did not know what the two discussed, but later said the November and January meetings involved another company Toomey lobbies for. He also said the pair have been friends for years, and that Toomey has many clients other than Merck. He insisted that the governor did not decide to issue the mandate until well after the November election.

Late Wednesday, Black issued a statement: "The Associated Press has tried to create a conspiracy where none exists, and they have offered not one shred of evidence to their baseless accusations that the governor's office has done anything wrong."

Merck spokesman Ray Kerins, reached after business hours, said he could not immediately comment but would look into the matter. Calls seeking comment were made to a home number for Delisi and an office number for Toomey, but were not immediately returned.

Cathie Adams, president of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum, said Black's explanation of the timing of the campaign contribution didn't sound right.

"We have too many coincidences," she said. "I think that the voters of Texas would find that very hard to swallow."

Bills have been introduced in about 20 states to require the vaccine, but they have struggled. Some parents' groups and doctors particularly object because the vaccine protects against a sexually transmitted disease. Vaccines mandated for school attendance usually are for diseases easily spread through casual contact, such as measles and mumps.

A bill has passed the Virginia Legislature, but a spokesman for Gov. Timothy Kaine said he wants to review a provision that lets parents opt out before he says if he will sign it.

___

Associated Press reporter Dena Potter in Richmond, Va. contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Associated Press