- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Women at the National Institutes of Health faced sexual intimidation and repeated disregard of their concerns for the welfare of patients in AIDS experiments, according to testimony by two senior female officers and documents gathered by investigators.

One longtime medical officer at the government’s premier medical research agency says the harassment and disregard for federal safety regulations are so widespread that employees are now afraid to hold up experiments even if they see a safety problem.

Her sworn testimony and other documents were obtained by the Associated Press from a variety of sources inside and outside NIH.

“It can be fairly uncomfortable,” NIH medical officer Dr. Betsy Smith testified in a recent civil case deposition that has been turned over to federal and Senate investigators. “There are a number of things that you really don’t talk about.”

In such a work environment, “You don’t hold up any projects even if you feel there are safety issues for certain projects,” she said.

Testimony by Dr. Smith and the chief compliance officer for AIDS research, as well as e-mails involving more staffers and several bosses, paint a picture of a sometimes raunchy, profane-language atmosphere inside an agency regarded for its pristine science.

Documents tell of women being involuntarily hugged or kissed by bosses and receiving profane e-mail. In one instance, a supervisor invited a colleague to a West Coast rock concert and suggested they also visit an AIDS clinic there so the trip could be charged to taxpayers.

Dr. Smith and the top regulatory compliance officer in the NIH’s AIDS division, Mary Anne Luzar, gave videotaped interviews and sworn depositions in recent weeks and expanded upon accusations made last year by an agency whistleblower, Dr. Jonathan Fishbein.

Dr. Fishbein says he is in the process of being fired as the AIDS division’s chief of human research protection because he raised concerns about patient safety and shoddy science. The NIH says he was fired for poor performance.

The Senate and the inspector general at the Health and Human Services Department are investigating the charges.

NIH managers said they could not address specific claims because of the investigations, but were taking steps to end any sexual harassment and improve communication among employees when safety issues arise.

“We must be sure our staff works productively and in a timely fashion with our investigators to resolve any issues related to the conduct of our studies, with the highest priority paid to patient safety,” said Dr. H. Clifford Lane, deputy director of the agency that oversees the AIDS research division.

Miss Luzar said her bosses frequently sided with the front-line researchers, rather than with the agency’s safety and regulatory specialists.

“We were [seen] an impediment to the science,” she testified. She described the division managers as “totally unsupportive” of safety concerns and bending to “tremendous pressure” from drug companies and researchers in the name of trying to cure AIDS.

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