Fed health regulators at risk of conflict of interest

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Inspectors are warning that federal health regulators are in danger of unwittingly violating conflict of interest laws because of a lack of documentation on conflict of interest waivers.

Under federal ethics rules, employees aren’t supposed to participate in matters in which they have a financial interest, including recent employment, grants and stock ownership. But in some instances, employees can receive a special waiver if officials decide the need for the employee’s services outweigh potential conflict of interest issues.

However, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in a report released this week said more than half of the 50 waivers they randomly reviewed from 2009 lacked the recommended documentation.

Some waivers didn’t describe the employees specific financial interest, for example. And although not required, several of the conflict of interest waivers were not dated or signed by the employee.

The inspector general's office said the lack of signatures was especially troubling.

“If these employees are not aware of their waivers or do not clearly understand them, they may violate the criminal conflict of interest statute by participating in prohibited matters,” officials wrote in the report.

What’s more, the report stated, “If waivers are not documented so that the public understands the employees’ conflicts of interest and their effect on the employees’ official government duties, the public may question the integrity of the employees’ service to the government.”

The inspector general's office also said that if employees don’t sign their ethics waivers, it becomes harder for authorities to hold them accountable for participating in matters that run afoul of conflict of interest rules.

The concerns are more than hypothetical, according to the report. In 2007, seven officials on committees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) participated in matters in which they should have been barred. When the inspector general's office investigated as part of a separate project, they later found a “lack of oversight,” including a failure to get signatures on some ethics waivers.

Department officials sharply disagreed with the findings in a formal response to the inspector general. A copy of the response was released with the report.

HHS officials said each of the 50 conflict of interest waivers reviewed by the inspector general met legal requirements and complied with the department’s policies.

David S. Cade, deputy general counsel for HHS, stated in the response, referring to the inspector general’s report, “we do find its legal evaluation wanting.”

Mr. Cade said the Office of Government Ethics also expressed concerns about the inspector general’s report, citing questions about the way officials conducted the review.

HHS spokesman Chris Stenrud said the issue is “a disagreement on how to best draft a legal document.

“Technical terminology often has to be used to be legally effective, but the document also has to be clear enough for the people signing it or affected by it to understand it,” he said.

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