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At the NIH, conflicting stories of conflict of interest

Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A19

It's been just three weeks since the National Institutes of Health announced new guidelines to deal with long-standing concerns that federally funded researchers were being influenced by millions of dollars from the drug industry and other companies, which would naturally love to see the researchers' efforts reach the right conclusions.

The NIH's tougher disclosure requirements came in response to a spate of bad press showing huge private-sector bucks flowing to researchers at universities and institutes and the like, creating, as NIH Director Francis S. Collins said, an appearance of a conflict of interest that could undermine public trust.

"We cannot afford to take any chances with the integrity of the research process," Collins said.

Then came a June 6 Chronicle of Higher Education article alleging that Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health and a leader in the effort to strengthen ethics rules, had helped Charles B. Nemeroff, a researcher who left Emory University last year after Senate investigators concluded that he had failed to disclose at least $1.2 million of some $2.8 million he had received over seven years from pharmaceutical companies.

Emory said it would not allow Nemeroff to apply for NIH grants for two years. But that restriction did not carry over to a future employer, such as the University of Miami -- where Nemeroff got a job, the Chronicle said, with a helpful recommendation from Insel. Nemeroff, in an e-mail obtained by the Chronicle, thanked Insel, saying "I appreciate your efforts."

The Chronicle article prompted Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been all over the battle to clean up federally funded research, to ask Health and Human Services inspector general Daniel R. Levinson, who has had Nemeroff "under investigation" by his office, to look into the matter.

Insel, however, called the article a "little surreal." He didn't have "any great relationship" with Nemeroff, he said in a telephone interview, and what Nemeroff "had done was so outrageous, he became the poster boy for conflict of interest."

"I didn't recommend him" for the Florida job, Insel said, but only clarified to an official there that Nemeroff was not barred from applying for future NIH grants.

The problem, he said, was that after Nemeroff was "penalized" at one institution, he "jumps to another. I can see why Sen. Grassley is upset," he added. "I would be upset at that, [but] we can do nothing about the individual -- the grants are given to the institution."

Sounds like the new guidelines may be in for some revisions once Grassley's through.

With the fix, Clinton's in

The constitutional dodge popularly known as the "Saxbe fix" is alive and well -- and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can keep her job -- after the Supreme Court on Monday tossed out a challenge to her continuing in office.

The fix, named for the great senator from Ohio, William Saxbe, is a ploy used with increasing frequency to evade the Constitution's seemingly explicit "emoluments" clause. That clause (in Article I, Section 6) says that no member of Congress shall be named to any job "the emoluments [salaries] whereof shall have been increased" during his term.

Clinton was in the Senate when Cabinet salaries were increased, so to get around the sometimes inconvenient Constitution, Congress reduced the secretary of state's pay to where it had been before she got elected. The constitutional challenge, brought by the conservative Judicial Watch, had been thrown out without any action in a lower court for lack of standing, the justices observed, so they had no jurisdiction to rule.

Besides, that's surely what the founding fathers intended when they went out of their way to specify directly in the Constitution that "no Senator or Representative shall . . . be appointed to any civil office . . . ."

Should've saved the date

Speaking of Clinton, why is she traveling outside the country on July 4th?

A wedding is to blame.

Word is the Poles were hosting the 10th anniversary gathering this year of one of those Euro meeting groups called the Community of Democracies. They were thinking Krakow, Poland, on the weekend of July 9, and notified Clinton's office of the event.

Oh, I would just love to come, she graciously replied, but deputy chief of staff Huma Abedin's wedding to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) is that weekend and I just can't miss that -- she's my longest-serving aide. If only you had decided to hold this important function the week before . . . but c'est la vie.

Next thing you know, the Poles call back and say, guess what, we moved it to the week before, so now you can come.

Uh-oh. Too late. And now she's committed to go July 2-4. She's stuck. No beer, no fries, no fireworks. Just kielbasa.

But at least she can go to the wedding on July 10.

A blast at the Mohegan

Don't forget! Eighteen or so Department of Interior (DOI) employees have already signed up to attend a fine conference at the spectacular Mohegan Sun hotel in Uncasville, Conn. The huge casino, resort and entertainment mecca is run by the Mohegan tribe.

"The DOI, office of civil rights, is sponsoring a pre-conference forum for DOI employees" on June 14, according to an e-mail from Rhea Suh, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget. This is in conjunction with the Society of American Indian Government Employees' (SAIGE) national training conference June 14-18.

Deadline for sign-up was Monday, but maybe they'll grant late requests. You'll get your travel paid for, and a per diem, and you can keep all your gambling winnings.

The pre-conference forum "is being co-hosted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs," Suh writes, along with the newly famous Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Well, MMS folks sure know how to roll the dice.

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