Lawmakers Rebuke FDA End Run on PR Contract

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008

Two lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday blasted a Food and Drug Administration contract for a public relations campaign, calling it a "reckless use of taxpayer dollars" and requesting documents from the officials and business executives involved.

The remarks by committee Chairman Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), came hours after The Washington Post published a story showing the agency took pains to avoid competition and direct work to a favored public relations firm in the District.

A Post examination of contracting documents, e-mails and interviews showed that an FDA official arranged to go around standard government contracting procedures by hiring an Alaska Native firm that did not have to compete for federal work because it qualifies for special set-asides. The plan was for the firm, Alaska Newspapers Inc., to direct the work to Qorvis Communication, the District firm, document and interviews showed.

The official who arranged the deal had previously worked at a company that retained Qorvis, documents and interviews showed.

After being made aware of The Post's findings, the FDA said this week it had suspended the $300,000 contract, launched an internal review and sought an outside investigation.

"Even more serious than the waste of appropriated funds, however, are the numerous violations of Federal procurement and contracting laws that appear to have occurred during the execution of this contract," Dingell and Stupak said in a letter to Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, which presides over the FDA.

The committee has held numerous hearings since early last year about the management of the FDA and questions about its inspections of vegetables, drugs and other products.

Yesterday's letter to Leavitt requested more details about the FDA contract, including all records relating to Alaska Newspapers, Qorvis and a consulting firm called Red Team Consulting. The letter also sought communications by eight FDA contracting officials and administrators, including the agency's chief of staff.

The committee issued similar letters to Qorvis, Red Team, based in Reston, and Calista Corp., the corporate parent of Alaska Newspapers. The letter to Qorvis sought communications records from five people, including Don Goldberg, who helps lead Qorvis's crisis communications practice and once served on President Clinton's crisis management team.

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