By Larry Margasak
Monday, August 11, 2008
The Department of Homeland Security swept aside evaluations by government experts and named Mississippi -- home to powerful U.S. lawmakers with sway over the agency -- as a potential location for a $451 million national laboratory to study some of the world's most virulent biological threats, according to internal documents obtained by the Associated Press.
Among the sites passed over for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility was Beltsville, Md., even though it scored better on Homeland Security's evaluation system than the Mississippi site. The department said there were too many skilled researchers near Beltsville, and the agency worried about competing to hire them.
"We were surprised when some of the things we felt were our strengths were turned back on us as weaknesses," said Stephen Schimpff, who led the effort to bring the lab to Beltsville.
Instead, the DHS shortlist of locations for the lab includes Granville County, N.C.; San Antonio; Manhattan, Kan.; Athens, Ga.; and Flora, Miss.
It is the inclusion of Flora on that list that one official for a rival bid, Irwin Goldman of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, called "very suspicious."
Mississippi's lawmakers include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees DHS, and Sen. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that oversees DHS money. Each said he was not aware of the department's deliberations about the lab location.
The facility would replace an existing 24-acre research complex on isolated Plum Island, N.Y. Researchers also would study foot-and-mouth disease, African swine fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, and the Hendra and Nipah viruses. Construction would begin in 2010 and take four years.
Government experts originally expressed concerns that the proposed site in Flora, 20 miles northwest of Jackson, Miss., is far from existing biodefense research programs and lacks ready access to workers already familiar with highly contagious animal and human diseases.
They assigned the site a score that ranked it 14th among 17 candidate sites.
But DHS Undersecretary Jay Cohen overruled those concerns under the theory that skilled researchers would move to Mississippi if it were selected for the new lab, according to a July 2007 internal government memorandum, marked "sensitive information" and obtained by the AP.
"It raised my eyebrows a bit when Mississippi was selected," said George Stewart of the University of Missouri at Columbia, another rejected location that also earned a score higher than Flora's. "Obviously, there were factors other than what they were looking in the site visits. The group that did the site visits were scientists and know what they were looking for. I don't know what DHS was looking for."
Under the department's own rules, it was free to disregard the recommendations of the government experts it appointed. But it said it selected advisers who were experts and were screened carefully for any conflicts of interest, working through seven stages of recommendations over 18 months. Cohen personally made the choices for the five sites in the eighth and final stage of the decision.
"While I take the committees' concerns to heart, I do not concur with the low scores," Cohen wrote.
Thompson said he never spoke about the subject with Cohen. But the department said he met with Cohen at least twice and discussed plans for the new lab, once in February 2007 in Mississippi and a year later in Washington.
"You told me more about the process than I know," Thompson told the AP. "I haven't talked to anyone about it, not to Jay Cohen or anyone."
Flora is not in Thompson's congressional district. But the consortium of public and private organizations working to attract the lab includes Tougaloo College, where Thompson received his bachelor's degree, and Jackson State University, where he was awarded his master's degree.
A department spokeswoman, Amy Kudwa, said the agency's internal committee reviews "did not appropriately consider the unique contributions certain consortia committed to make in their proposals." Mississippi, for example, promised to work closely with Battelle Memorial Institute, a DHS contractor that manages some national labs elsewhere for the Homeland Security and Energy departments.