The General Accounting Office is launching an investigation into how and why the prestigious Centers for Disease Control and Prevention diverted millions of dollars appropriated by Congress for chronic fatigue syndrome research to other programs.
As the probe by Congress's investigatory arm gets underway, top officials at the Atlanta-based agency are moving to remedy what they acknowledged in a statement was a "breach of CDC's solemn trust" that "is in direct conflict with its core values."
The diversion of money was detailed in a May audit by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services; HHS oversees the centers. The audit said that nearly $9 million approved by Congress for chronic fatigue syndrome research in recent years was spent by the CDC on other research and that more than $4 million more may have been misspent. The audit also said the agency gave false information to Congress about how the money was spent. It is illegal to lie to Congress. The IG did not address the issue of why the money was diverted.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is a debilitating disease characterized by profound fatigue and lack of stamina.
"I take the findings and the need to do something about them in a substantive way extremely seriously," new CDC Director Jeffrey P. Koplan said in an interview yesterday. He said he did not know of any other similar diversion of funds from other research programs.
Among other actions, Koplan said he has, in recent days:
* Made a public apology for providing misleading information to Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), who heads a House subcommittee that oversee's the agency's budget.
* Agreed to restore over the next four years the nearly $9 million that had been diverted. The money will be taken from the National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID), Koplan said.
* Established probationary status for the NCID's Division of Viral and Rickettsial Diseases, which houses the chronic fatigue research program. For the first time in the CDC's history, a division director will not be able to determine the division's budget--a result of the probationary status. That authority will reside, until January 2001, with Koplan's office.
* Required training for all CDC managers and staff responsible for budget and accounting functions to ensure that they know the statutory and regulatory requirements for the use of federal funds.
Koplan said he is committed to restoring the faith of Congress in the agency. But on the heels of the IG audit, the GAO is nonetheless undertaking an investigation into the diversion, nearly a year after Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) requested one.
"Now that we have proof the funds were misused, we can work on making up lost time, and getting this research effort back on track," Reid said.
Kim Kenney, executive director of the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America, said she finds it "encouraging" that Koplan is restoring much of the misused money. Her organization has worked for years to force the agency to admit the problem.
"The proof will be how the actions unfold, the way that the research is conducted from here on out and in how responsive the agency is to this plan they have put forward," Kenney said. "They are talking the talk right now. Their tone is encouraging, but I want to see them actually come through with some action."
The diversion was first disclosed to Congress last year by CDC researcher William Reeves, who as chief of the viral exanthems and herpesvirus branch is directly responsible for the agency's chronic fatigue syndrome research program. He reported then that his boss, division director Brian Mahy, had moved the funds out of research for chronic fatigue syndrome.
Koplan declined yesterday to say whether Mahy would be disciplined, saying he could not discuss personnel matters. Mahy did not return phone calls.
The director of the CDC is allowed to transfer money from one research program to another, but lower-level employees are not allowed to do so.
CAPTION: CDC Director Jeffrey P. Koplan says his agency will restore nearly $9 million in the next four years.