Federal auditors have questioned the way in which the Food and Drug Administration's new deputy commissioner, John A. Norris, was paid up to $400 a day in consulting and contract fees in the months before he joined the agency.
Norris was first hired as a temporary employe by the FDA and later given three noncompetitive contracts at the request of FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young. Young is a longtime associate of Norris and kept him on retainer when Young was dean of the University of Rochester School of Medicine.
In effect, FDA officials acknowledge, Young was seeking a legal way to pay for Norris' advice after Norris made clear that it would be some time before he could accept a full-time agency job.
The FDA paid Norris' small Boston law firm $63,500 for periodic work from last August through March, then continued to pay its expenses under an unusual "pro bono" arrangement until two weeks ago, when Norris assumed the agency's No. 2 job. Norris may be paid another $42,000 for work initially described as volunteer.
Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) has asked the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department to investigate whether the arrangements with Norris violated federal contracting rules. The General Accounting Office, which reviewed the matter at Weiss' request, raised questions about the arrangement, including Norris' refusal to allow GAO auditors to review some of his records.
Norris, 38, who received $15,698 in salary from the FDA during the nine-month period, declined to be interviewed.
Norris' firm produced three reports for Young that contained such advice as "sell members of Congress on something that is a positive topic" and "always return phone calls even when you don't know the answer . . . do not be arrogant."
The reports, which quoted advice from administration and congressional officials, contained frequent references to Young's boss, HHS Secretary Margaret M. Heckler. The reports said Young should be "an HHS 'team player,' " should "emphasize the secretary's leadership qualities" and "mention her name a lot."
In a letter to Weiss this week, Young said: "I have known John for over six years and I have the greatest respect for his judgment . . . . It was important to me . . . to have access to John's assistance and counsel."
Young, who waived competition for the contracts to the firm of Norris & Norris, said the firm received a fraction of what it normally charges private clients. He said he "did not ask John to submit documentation for his advice and counsel . . . because I believed I could attest to the value of that service."
Gerald F. Meyer, the FDA's associate commissioner for management, said it was not improper for Young to seek outside advice from someone he trusts. "He wanted John Norris," Meyer said. "I don't think that's particularly wrong . . . . I don't see that as favoritism."
Among other things, the GAO questioned:
* Why Norris was hired in the first place. The FDA paid Norris $254 a day as a temporary consultant from August to November for assignments that included editing Young's speeches and testimony. Consultants are supposed to be hired only for work that cannot be done by federal employes, although top officials often bend that rule.
* Whether the FDA tried to circumvent procurement rules on three contracts from November through March. Meyer warned Norris last fall that he was close to exceeding a 60-day limit on consulting that would have barred him from receiving any FDA contracts.
After Norris worked 60 days, he was given three contracts for $9,980, $9,980 and $9,910. Meyer acknowledged that these were just under the $10,000 limit that would have required more detailed justification for the lack of competitive bidding, and said he saw no reason to provide that.
* Whether Norris was given contracts for work he had already done. One contract awarded in January was for Norris to make final a draft report he had written "pro bono" in December, after his consulting job had expired. Young acknowledged this, saying Norris "simply could not afford" to finish the project and that he was made a contractor as a way of boosting his pay to $400 a day.
* Why the FDA paid some of Norris' expenses and gave him a telephone credit card during periods that he was off the agency's payroll. Young said this was only fair because Norris had done much of the work for free.
* Why Norris refused to provide detailed documents on his work for the FDA. Meyer said the GAO was too adversarial and said he had told Norris he did not have to open his company's books to the GAO or reconstruct records on his work. In one case, Norris has agreed to repay $581 in billings found to be unrelated to the FDA contracts.
Norris' reports were obtained by the House Government Operations subcommittee on intergovernmental relations and human resources, which Weiss chairs. One of them advises Young on how to improve communications with Congress.
"Of all Commissioner Young's FDA constituencies, Congress is, if not the most important, close to it," the report said. "The next most important constituency is industry."
The report quoted an aide as saying that members of Congress "can get press when they find fault with the FDA and then report it." Young was urged to "establish good relations with Republican members on the committees," in part by "highlighting or 'showcasing' their FDA-related interests, which will have a favorable impact 'back home' for their constituencies."
The other reports deal with Young's "Action Plan" for the FDA, saying it should be shared with congressional leaders before it is made public.
"The theme of the press conference at FDA (if Secretary Heckler is willing to travel) or at HHS should be entitled 'Commissioner Young's Response to Secretary Heckler's Charge to Renew the FDA: the FDA's New Action Plan,' " the report said. "Secretary Heckler should be present on the dais . . . . As one alternative, Secretary Heckler could introduce Dr. Young and then depart."