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Former Cancer Institute Official Is a Focus of Ethics Investigation

June 27, 2003|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The former head of the National Cancer Institute accepted cash awards from research organizations that at the same time were receiving or possibly seeking grants from his agency, a House committee said yesterday as it announced an ethics investigation of the National Institutes of Health.

The committee said prize awards and lecture fees given to Dr. Richard D. Klausner, who led the cancer agency from 1995 to 2001, raised conflict-of-interest concerns and suggested that ethics regulations may be insufficient. The National Cancer Institute is a unit of the National Institutes of Health, the government's giant biomedical research bureaucracy.

Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the health agency Thursday for records on cash awards and lecture fees, as well as on which officials received them. "Simply put, we want to make certain that kickbacks are not being made to NIH officials disguised as lecture awards," said Ken Johnson, committee spokesman.

Efforts to reach Klausner at his Seattle home and at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he now works, were unsuccessful.

Klausner's acceptance of a $3,000 award from the Arizona Cancer Center in 2000 is "a case in point" for how NIH ethics regulation may be flawed, Reps. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) and James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.) said in a letter to Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the health agency. Tauzin chairs the House committee, and Greenwood leads its subcommittee on investigations.

Klausner received the $3,000 for winning the center's Donald Ware Waddell Award in January 2000 and for giving a lecture associated with the award. In the same year, the Arizona Cancer Center received grants and contracts from the National Cancer Institute worth more than $25 million, the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers said Klausner also received a $4,000 lecture award in 2000 from the Van Andel Research Institute, an independent cancer research organization in Grand Rapids, Mich. Another official of the National Cancer Institute received the same award the following year.

In 2002, the Van Andel Institute, along with the University of Michigan, received a $10-million grant to establish a cancer imaging center, the lawmakers said. Klausner left the National Cancer Institute in late September 2001, but award decisions are sometimes made months before grants are given.

In a third lecture award, Klausner "apparently accepted" $15,000 from Ohio State University for a speech in March 1999, Tauzin and Greenwood said. Ohio State received $18.7 million from the National Cancer Institute in the fiscal year that began in the fall of 1999.

Tauzin and Greenwood did not directly accuse Klausner of breaking ethics laws or guidelines, and they did not say that he played a direct role in awarding grants to the institutions where he lectured. They did say they were advised by the Congressional Research Service that, as a presidential appointee, Klausner was likely barred from receiving outside compensation during his appointment.

In addition, federal ethics rules bar senior government officials from receiving payments for lectures involving their area of official business, the lawmakers said. Klausner's three lectures were about cancer.

More broadly, Tauzin and Greenwood said, federal law bars federal officials from receiving money from someone doing business with, or seeking official action from, that official's agency. Klausner received permission from the Department of Health and Human Services to receive the Arizona and Van Andel awards, the committee said.

But in seeking the approvals, Klausner certified that the award was coming from an institution that had no significant interests before his agency. That judgment is supposed to be made by an ethics officer, not by Klausner himself, according to the committee.

In the Arizona and Van Andel cases, the lawmakers said, Klausner signed a recusal disqualifying himself from participating in matters involving the institutions giving him awards. But those recusals were written to expire just after Klausner received the money, the committee said, apparently leaving him free to make judgments that affected those institutions later on.

In a written statement, NIH spokesman John Burklow said, "We are not aware of any ethics-rules violations. However, we will review the questions raised by the committee and respond in a timely manner."

Neither the Arizona Cancer Center nor the Van Andel Research Institute responded to requests for comment. Ohio State said its lectureship is awarded through an "international competitive process."

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