When the publicly traded biodefense company PharmAthene Inc. hired Thomas R. Fuerst as its chief scientific officer in April, executives publicized his work as a senior official in the federal government leading the development and acquisition of vaccines and other products against pandemic flu, smallpox and anthrax.
Mr. Fuerst was appointed shortly after his departure from the Department of Health and Human Services at a time when the Annapolis, Md.-based company was trying hard to sell a new anthrax vaccine to the government, highlighting the so-called "revolving door" in which former senior federal officials land jobs in industries with which they interacted while serving in the government.
Though President Obama enacted new revolving-door ethics rules soon after taking office requiring a two-year "cooling off" period for appointees leaving the government, those regulations apply only to incoming appointees - not to career federal employees such as Mr. Fuerst. He holds a doctoral degree in molecular genetics.
"It looks like Dr. Fuerst walked the ethics tightrope," said Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan watchdog group Project On Government Oversight.
"But, as they say, the devil is in the details, and continued enforcement of any post-government restrictions is required," he said. "Avoiding all conflicts, including the appearance of a conflict, is essential considering the government's forthcoming procurement of the next anthrax vaccine."
Company officials said Mr. Fuerst will not communicate with or petition officials in the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, an agency within HHS, for one year, though he is free to contact officials in other components within the department. They also say he is complying with all post-employment ethics rules.
HHS officials declined to comment other than to confirm that Mr. Fuerst was not a political appointee but a career civil servant.
Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, a Washington watchdog group, said Mr. Fuerst's hiring poses ethical concerns inside and outside government about "revolving-door abuse" and whether the company is trying to "cash in on Fuerst's connections in government."
PharmAthene touted Mr. Fuerst's work with HHS in an April 5 press release that announced his hiring. In its announcement, the company said Mr. Fuerst would oversee the company's research and development plans and provide "strategic scientific direction" for PharmAthene.
The company also noted that before joining PharmAthene, Mr. Fuerst worked at HHS as director of vaccines and biologics from 2004 to 2007, then as an HHS senior science and technology adviser until he joined PharmAthene.
"During his tenure at HHS, Dr. Fuerst helped establish the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and oversaw the planning, implementation and monitoring of medical countermeasure development and acquisition, while managing a budget of approximately $3.0 billion," the company said in its announcement.
A spokeswoman for PharmAthene said Mr. Fuerst wasn't involved in any contract awards to the company before he joined it. As an adviser, she said, Mr. Fuerst did not oversee anthrax vaccine development programs for BARDA.
The spokeswoman, Stacey Jurchison, also said Mr. Fuerst "is a scientist; he does not lobby on behalf of our company."
She said the hiring of Mr. Fuerst isn't unlike the December hiring by one of its competitors, Emergent Biosolutions, of a former top official for the Health Protection Agency in Britain.
"We made a conscious decision to be transparent in the hiring of Dr. Fuerst, as evidenced by our April 5th press release announcing his appointment as PharmAthene's chief scientific officer and, of course, his further introduction on a wider May 11th conference call" with analysts," Ms. Jurchison said.
She said the company wanted to be transparent to "avoid a situation similar to the one a competitor found themselves in a while back," referring to a report by the Daily Press newspaper in Virginia in 2005 about the hiring by BioPort Corp., another competitor, of a former HHS official as a consultant.
In a May 11 earnings conference call, Mr. Fuerst said he became interested in joining the company for two reasons.
"First, because I felt that I could be more effective in helping to advance these critical biodefense products by transferring the skills and knowledge I had cultivated within government service to industry," he said.
"And second, because I believe very much in the merits of PharmAthene's portfolio, its operational team and the need to see these products commercialized," he added.
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