A former assistant secretary of health, education and welfare says that spokesmen for both Rep. Daniel J. Flood (D-Pa.) and the Nixon White House exerted pressure to award a $500,000 a-year cancer information program sought by the Airlie Foundation in 1974.
Lewis M.Helm, who was HEW assistant secretary for public affairs at the time, said he received a burst of calls shortly after he held up the project in a skeptical May 1, 1974, memo to the head of the National Cancer INstitute.
The proposal that Helm questioned was a document listing the qualifications for a ptential bidder. Helm said the specifications were "obviously built aroung Arlie House." He said his callers evidently thought it was, too.
For instance, Helm cited one call he got from former Flood aide Stephen Elko, who was convicted last fall of bribery in another matter. Elko "asked why I was holding up the contract for the Airlie Foundations," the former HEW official recalled.
Similar inquiries, Helm related, came in - within about a week of his May 1 memo - from someone in the White House Office of Communications, then headed by Kenneth W.Clawson, and from Ralph Vinovich, longtime administrative assistant to Rep.Robert H. Michel (R-Ill).
"They mentioned Airlie House, too, and "why was I holding up the contract,'" Helm said.
He said he managed to fend them off by saying that all he had before him was not a contract for Airlie House, but a somewhat restrictivd proposal for bidders on a TV film project "that we were attempting to broaden."
The FBI recently began looking into government contracts awarded to the Airlie Foundation and an allied George Washington University Medical Center group as part of an investigation of congressional influence-peddling centering on Flood. FBI agents started two weeks ago with documents at the Agency for International Development, and several days ago, according to sources close to the investigation, expanded their inquiries about Airlie House to HEW.
The cancer institute dropped the TV film-making project several weeks after HEW public affairs officials challenged it, apparently in ignorance of bluntly stated congressional warnings that they should stay out of the institute's public relations business.
The warnings then became law that July with enactment of the 1974 Cancer Act. It included a provision explicitly directing the cancer institute to carry out its own public information program. The House and Senate committee reports accompanying the legislation emphasized that the cancer institute's PR efforts were not to be restricted, curtailed, regulated or modified by HEW.
"It was flat statutory prohibition against my requiring them to send anything through my office," Helm said. "It's still the law as far as I know."
The cancer institute "had an awful lot of friends on the Hill," Helm's old boss, former HEW Secretary Caspar A.Weinberger, added in a separate interview. "It was a very popular disease."
Helm said none of the calls he got had a threatening tone, but he said he felt they still amounted to a clear form of "pressure," coming as they did from the White House, and the top aides to the chairman (Flood) and the ranking Republican (Michel) on the House subcommittee in charge of HEW appropriations. Helm said he told Weinberger and HEW Under Secretary Frank Carlucci about it "and they said, 'Hang in there.'"
Now deputy director at the Central Intelligence Agency, Carlucci said he remembered Helm telling him "that he was getting calls. I think I told him to firm."
Former WHite House aide Clawson had no recollection of any call to Helm on befalf of Airlie House. Elko, who has been quoted in a recent court affidavit as alleging that Airlie Foundation Director Murdock Head paid Flood and Elko $77,000 in 1971-73 for Flood 's help in another matter, has been testifying before government prosecutors and federal grand juries and has not been available for comment.
Michel's top aide, Ralph Vinovich, said it was Head who asked him to intervene.
"I think Head had been trying to see him," Vinovich recalled. "He (Head) said, I'm having trouble getting to him. Could you talk to him?"
At the Airlie Foundation, Associate Director Frank Kavanaugh said that Vinovich was "among those apparently contacted" in an effort to determine "the status of this project." But Kavanaugh said neither he nor Head had any knowledge of the calls Helm said he got from Elko and the White House.
While the project was never dunded, Kavanaugh said in a prepared statement, "Airlie Foundation worked steadily on this project for more than one year with senior scientists of the National Cancer Institute and of various major universities." Once it had been approved by cancer institute officials and forwarded to Helm's office for final approval, the statement continued: "As is generally customary with those professionals responsible for medical research projects to be funded by the government, Dr.Murdock Head or members of his staff contacted the offices of various congressment to determine the status of this project while ti was pending in this particular office. Among those apparently contacted was the administrative assistant to the ranking Republican member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on HEW."
Several past and present cancer institute officials recalled that, in 1973, Head and his associates felt they should get a "sole source contract" without any bidding, but it was eventually decided that this could not be justified.
Instead, in early March of 1974, officials at the cancer institute and the National Institutes of Health approved the "sources sought" proposal, explicitly defining the qualifications any bidder would have to have, and sent it on its way downtown to HEW.
On paper, the document called for competitive bidding, but it also said any bidder would have to have physician in a key sraff position, would have to be able to offer film production facilities clost to Washington and meet several other restrictive criteria that seemed tailor-made for the Virginia-based foundation directed by Head.
The Airlie Foundation is in Warrenton,Va., where it has film-making facilities in conjunction with the George Washington University Medical Center's Department of Medical and Public Affairs. Head is also "Airlie professor and chairman of the department" of GWU, which serves as the recipient of most of Airlie's federal contracts and grants.
The proposal was forwarded to Helm on March 21, 1974, by an official in the Public Health Service, who recommended conditional clearance. In an undated memo that he said he wrote almost immediately, presumably by March 22 or March 23. Helm replied that he had many more objections to the plan that he wanted straightened out.
At that point, the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee which has jurisdiction over the National Cancer Institute, had already expressed its annoyance over HEW's cutbacks in public affairs personnel at the cancer institute. Reporting out the 1974 cancer legislation on March 20, the committee said it wanted "a full range of communications, information and public affairs activities in support of the National Cancer Program" and that these were "not to be subject to regulation and modification within the DHEW."
Helm, who says he was unaware of the strictures, made clear a few days later that he was withholding approval of the $500,000-a-year program that the Airlie Foundation had devised.
Perhaps as a result, the House Commerce Committee, in a report dated March 27, 1974, found fresh reason for alarm over the cancer institute's public relations programs.
"The committee is impressed," the House report said, "that part of the reason why the NCI has been criticized for the inadequacy of its information programs is that these programs have been slowed and limited by the elaborateness of the reviews and approvals which must be sought for them in the bureaucracy surrounding the NCI. Since the committee feels that these activities on the part of the NCI are crucial to the program and appropriate for it, it is intended that this limitation and interference by HEW will be stopped."
The HEW comptroller's office is charged with disseminating such instructions within the massive department, but Helm says he still didn't get the word.
Instead, in his May 1, 1974, memo to National Cancer Institute Director Frank Rauscher Jr., Helm demanded to know why a film-maker couldn't simply enlist a doctor as a consultant rather than have one on the staff. He posed a series of other critical questions about still other provisions that he felt had been designed for Airlie House.
Helm also wondered why the project should pegged at "$500,000 per annum." The only projects explicitly envisioned were "the preparation and distribution of a 28- to 58-minute film for the general television audience and a series of shorter television news features."
The calls from Capitol Hill and the White House came in shortly thereafter, but Helm says he simply dug in his heels.
"The more they pushed, the more apparent it became that we had to set down the facts and bring them to the attention of Weinberger and Carlucci," he said. On May 16, Helm's director of audio-visual affairs, Maurice McDonald, submitted a sharply worded memo criticizing the Airlie Foundation's highly expensive distribution methods. McDonald also reported that the foundation had sold Blue Cross-Blue Shield exclusive distribution rights to a series of three drug-abuse films for more than $100,000 "at the same time that Airlie House was beign paid by HEW to distribute it." (Airlie officials have denied any improprieties in the transaction.)
Congress passed the 1974 cancer legislation July 10. Helm finally realized that he was prohibited by law from reviewing the cancer institute's informational programs. "I figure that was my reply," he says.
Carlucci had the same impression. "Helm came by my office one day and said, 'Guess what happened?'" the former HEW under secretary related."He said, "there's this provision in the (cancer) authorization bill...'"