In E-Mails, Political Pressure on Ex-Surgeon General

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007

White House officials viewed former surgeon general Richard H. Carmona as a public relations tool, pushing him to make political appearances and promote the Bush administration's agenda while he was in office, according to a series of executive branch e-mails released yesterday by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The 18 pages of e-mails back up Carmona's testimony before a House committee in July that he routinely battled Bush appointees who sought to rewrite his speeches, send him on political trips, and suppress his reports on global health, prison health and other politically sensitive topics. President Bush and other administration officials rejected the accusation.

An e-mail on Feb. 6, 2006, includes a memo to Carmona from then-White House political director Sara Taylor requesting that he deliver the keynote speech to the Alabama Republican Council's annual fundraiser in Birmingham on March 4 of that year. "WH would be grateful if you could do this event," Jamie Burke, the White House liaison at the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in her cover note.

Carmona replied that "this one may present a conflict since it appears to be a fundraiser and OGC [Office of General Counsel] has previously told me to stay away from those type of events." He did not attend.

Richard Finley, chairman of the Alabama group, which represents black Republicans, said yesterday that he wanted Carmona to discuss health concerns in the black community.

In January 2006, Burke sent Carmona several e-mails asking, on behalf of the White House political office, whether he would speak to a Fraternal Order of Police gathering in Nashville on Feb. 11. "Just found out this is a HUGE push from WH -- can you do this event?" Burke wrote on Jan. 23. "Sorry to be such a pest." Carmona made that trip.

Carmona served as the nation's top public health official from 2002 to 2006, when he was abruptly told he would not be reappointed. The e-mails show that, early in his tenure, political appointees considered him uncooperative. In an April 14, 2003, message, for instance, William Turenne, a former Eli Lilly executive who was serving as a high-level consultant at HHS, told then-White House liaison Regina Schofield that she had "a mess" on her hands in Carmona.

"He needs to be the SG [Surgeon General] with specific speeches, on specific topics addressing the Secretary's and the president's agenda -- which will become more political as the re-elect gets underway," Turenne wrote.

In a Sept. 25, 2002, e-mail to Schofield, Turenne described Carmona as "wandering" and "not focused on the president's/secretary's agenda."

"These documents confirm that White House and HHS officials improperly sought to influence the activities of the Surgeon General to achieve political goals," Kennedy wrote yesterday in a letter to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt.

Kennedy, chairman of the Senate health committee, obtained the e-mails as part of a probe into political interference in public health matters. In his letter, Kennedy noted that many of the White House e-mails were sent from Republican National Committee accounts held by White House officials, and he requested more documents.

Leavitt declined to comment.

Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said, "If Dr. Carmona had concerns about how his office was running, he had an obligation to raise those concerns while he was in the position."

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