Richard D. Klausner, global health director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and former chief of the National Cancer Institute, said yesterday that he will leave the Seattle foundation Dec. 31 to start a new venture.
Klausner said his decision to resign has "absolutely" nothing to do with revelations on Friday that congressional investigators looking into possible financial improprieties during his tenure at the NCI have asked the Government Accountability Office to expand that inquiry.
Capping a multiyear investigation, the House Energy and Commerce Committee in August sent a 17-page confidential letter to the GAO outlining accumulated evidence against Klausner, according to Friday's issue of the Cancer Letter, a privately published investigative newsletter.
The congressional letter to the GAO, which the Cancer Letter posted on the Web late last week, suggests that Klausner did not properly recuse himself from a decision to award a large NCI contract to Harvard University when Klausner was applying for various jobs there, including the university's presidency.
If the GAO does pursue the issues raised by the committee, it could lead to a painful new chapter for the health agency, which just finished rewriting its rules on employee conflict of interest after a series of difficult congressional hearings. While the recent policy changes were implemented to minimize employee financial conflicts, the new questions relate to how the agency procures scientific goods and services through its contracts.
Contacted by e-mail yesterday, Klausner -- who served as NCI director from 1995 to 2001 -- said the timing of his departure from the Gates Foundation was unrelated to the investigations. He said he will reveal details of his new venture "in a few weeks."
"I am very happy with this decision and my time at the Gates Foundation," he added.
Joe Cerrell, director of global health advocacy for the Gates Foundation, echoed that view in a telephone interview, saying the timing was "purely coincidental."
Klausner has for "several months" been talking to the foundation's president, Patty Stonesifer, about moving on to something new, Cerrell said. Those discussions culminated in a "mutual decision" that Klausner would leave his $442,000-a-year job at the foundation, Cerrell said, which donates billions of dollars to the battle against global health scourges such as tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS.
At the center of the congressional inquiry was a contractual arrangement between the NCI and Harvard to create a "molecular target laboratory." The lab would help identify molecules with the potential to influence biochemical pathways involved in causing or preventing illness.
According to the letter from Congress to the GAO, Klausner recused himself from all issues having to do with Harvard for two one-year periods: once starting in June 1999, while he was being considered for a job with a Harvard affiliate, and once starting in December 2000, when he applied for the presidency. Nonetheless, the letter to GAO states, "documents and witness statements provide reasonable grounds to believe that [Klausner] participated personally and substantially as a government employee in matters affecting Harvard."
Among the letter's allegations are that Klausner appointed several members of an independent review group that assessed Harvard's bid for the contract and maintained communications with Harvard researchers, which may have helped them win, in 2002, the coveted $40 million, five-year contract.
Klausner later became a board member and adviser to a company co-founded by some of the Harvard scientists who won the NCI contract.
Klausner has repeatedly said that his activities were approved by National Institutes of Health ethics officers and violated no rules.
An NIH spokesman reiterated yesterday the agency's long-standing promise to fully cooperate with the committee and the GAO.