Probe Finds NIH Official Violated Government Regulations
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
A high-powered institute director at the National Institutes of Health disregarded conflict-of-interest guidelines by making decisions affecting the university where he was a faculty member, broke government spending rules, and raised concerns with his growing involvement as an expert witness in legal cases, according to sources within NIH and Congress and hundreds of pages of confidential documents.
David Schwartz, a physician and researcher recruited from Duke University to great fanfare in 2005 as chief of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, was found to have spent modest amounts of institute money for personal purposes but was cleared of other allegations of wrongdoing in a recent internal NIH ethics review obtained by The Washington Post.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Schwartz said he made mistakes, which he blamed on "misunderstandings" about institute rules and "poor communication," for which he said he takes "full responsibility."
Schwartz denied any deception on his part, however, and said he has taken corrective actions to prevent future problems.
But several members of Congress have demanded more details, saying they have evidence that the NIH report is incomplete. And scores of e-mails reviewed by The Post confirm that ethics officials in NIH and in the Health and Human Services secretary's office have grown increasingly frustrated with Schwartz's repeated insensitivity to conflict-of-interest rules.
In one exchange, when officials learned that Schwartz had not fully divested all his biotechnology and drug company stocks as required, Schwartz wrote to the NIH ethics office that the divestiture "seems totally unreasonable. . . . I'm simply not willing to limit my investments in this way."
The ethics officer, who later complained that she had "lost patience . . . a long time ago" with Schwartz, responded, "It may appear to be unreasonable, but it is the law."
He subsequently sold the stocks.
Also raising alarms were Schwartz's growing commitments to give expert testimony in multimillion-dollar asbestos injury cases -- of concern because he might be perceived as profiting personally from his status as head of the nation's premier environmental toxicology program.
Schwartz brought more than a dozen Duke researchers to his federal lab, despite a requirement that he recuse himself from matters involving Duke. He also overspent his lab budget by millions of dollars. Those actions led agency officials to take the extremely unusual step of banning Schwartz from his own lab for nearly three months, putting it into receivership and sending the researchers back to Duke in what one official called a "de-Duking" process.
Raynard S. Kington, NIH's deputy administrator and top ethics officer, attributed the problems to a "misunderstanding" when Schwartz was hired as to the limits he would have in his new job.
The lab was recently placed under the budgetary control of another NIH institute to prevent further problems, Kington said.