Major drug manufacturers have paid cash, honorariums and consulting fees for years to as many as 200 employes of the Veterans Administration, according to government and corporate records and interviews with government investigators.
Although the agency said last month that only one company had made payments to VA employes, high-ranking VA sources told Knight-Ridder newspapers that the practice, which generally is against the agency's rules, was more widespread.
The sources and records, which include financial disclosure forms filed annually by many full-time VA employes, also indicate that senior agency officials sometimes approved payments from drug companies to employes for speaking engagements and consulting work.
In other cases, part-time VA employes, aided by loopholes in agency regulations, routinely accepted gifts and honorariums from drug companies without the knowledge of agency officials, VA sources said.
Donna St. John, a spokeswoman for the VA in Washington, confirmed last month that the agency was investigating reports that as many as 100 VA employes had accepted money and gifts, but said the allegations involved only one company, which she would not name.
Sources later identified the firm as Smith Kline & French Laboratories, the pharmaceutical division of the giant SmithKline Beckman Corp. of Philadelphia. A spokesman for SmithKline acknowledged that the company had been cooperating for a year with an investigation by the VA inspector general's office. But VA sources said that many major drug companies had engaged in some of the same practices.
"This is only Phase One. It's the beginning of the road, not the end of the road," said an investigator in the inspector general's office who did not want to be identified. "There's the potential for enormous abuse."
"I would say that it's maybe twice the number of employes," an attorney in the VA's office of general counsel said.
Disclosure statements filed by about 400 full-time VA employees earning more than $56,000 showed the pattern.