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NIH record-keeping scandal emboldens GOP attacks

Full article on The Hill.

brewing controversy involving top officials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) seemingly trying to hide public records could give Republicans an opening to overhaul the agency and potentially slash its budget should they gain control of the government in November.

The emails uncovered as part of the investigation by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus have put the $49 billion agency under rare bipartisan scrutiny, and outside groups are scrambling to rally its defenders.

The NIH is the top biomedical research grant agency in the world and has historically enjoyed bipartisan support from Congress.

But the COVID-19 pandemic changed that, as Republicans became outraged at efforts to stop the spread of the virus. They’ve argued the agency, and former White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci in particular, has become unaccountable.

Those arguments have been growing louder throughout the House GOP-led coronavirus investigation, and are likely to take center stage when Fauci publicly testifies before Congress on Monday for the first time since retiring.

Lawmakers say the escalating probe into the virus’s origins has uncovered efforts to hide official government correspondence, evade Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and avoid public scrutiny.

In a May 28 letter to NIH Director Monica Bertagnolli, the subcommittee’s chair, Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), said the evidence “suggests a conspiracy at the highest levels of NIH and NIAID to avoid public transparency regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.”

House Republicans this week released a series of private emails that suggest at least some agency officials, including a top adviser to Fauci, deleted messages and used personal emails to skirt public records laws.

David Morens, a former Fauci aide and career NIH scientist, testified last week that he may have sent information on government business to Fauci’s personal email address.

“I can either send stuff to Tony on his private gmail, or hand it to him at work … He is too smart to let colleagues send him stuff that could cause trouble,” Morens wrote in a 2021 email released by the committee.

“i learned from our [FOIA] lady here how to make emails disappear after i am foia’d but before the search starts, so i think we are all safe,” Morens wrote in a separate email. “Plus i deleted most of those earlier emails after sending them to gmail.”

Some conservatives, including allies of former President Trump, think the NIH is a bloated bureaucracy that acts as a shield for unaccountable government officials. And they say emails from Morens, as well Fauci’s former chief of staff, Greg Folkers, are further proof of that.

Wenstrup told the Hill the subcommittee is considering referring Morens to the Department of Justice to face criminal charges for deliberately evading government open records policies. But while he said NIH should face scrutiny, he suggested accountability ought to come from within.

“I would hope that the new leadership takes it upon themselves. You know, just say we want to clean the record here and we want people to have more trust in public health. And we’re going to investigate ourselves,” Wenstrup said. “I would hope that they would do that or assign an inspector general to look into the doings, the proceedings that have taken place within their agency over the years.”

Still, outside conservative groups that could influence the next Republican administration think the agency is ripe for change.

“This is going to be the source of, I think, very serious attempts to reform and restructure the NIH,” said Robert Moffit, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It is absolutely clear that Congress has to revisit the NIH and the way it functions.”

Project 2025, a sweeping presidential transition plan for a potential second Trump presidency led by Heritage staff, suggests making it easier to fire top agency officials as a way to gut bureaucracy and hold them more accountable.

Brian Blase, a former member of the Trump administration’s National Economic Council and president of Paragon Health Institute, said “everything should be on the table” in terms of changes to the agency.

“It is obvious that the public health establishment acted in deceptive ways and needs reform. And everything should be on the table, including significant reorganization and funding level changes to ensure that public health agencies actually promote the health and well-being of the public,” Blase said in an email.

Moffit said he wouldn’t go so far as to suggest cutting funding.

“We’re talking about biomedical research … obviously, nobody wants to do anything that’s going to damage our research capacity,” Moffit said. “You know, just lashing out, the United States cannot afford that.”

But the NIH is already facing long odds to see a meaningful funding increase in the current budget environment.

“The tough caps that are squeezing [the Department of Defense] are squeezing NIH,” Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said at a recent hearing on NIH’s fiscal 2025 budget request. “They are threatening to slow or derail breakthroughs patients and families are desperately counting on.”

House Republicans proposed slashing 8 percent of the agency’s budget in fiscal 2024, though the final government funding bill essentially kept NIH funding flat.

Ellie Dehoney, senior vice president at Research!America, a research advocacy organization, said she thinks congressional allies of NIH won’t let the agency’s budget get cut, even if Republicans want to “punish” agency officials.

Congressional champions “definitely agree that accountability and transparency and those kinds of things, they’re going to be on that. But I don’t think it’s going to bleed into funding, and it’s part of our role as advocates to make sure it doesn’t,” Dehoney said.

“We’re gonna have to be vigilant to make sure that any changes proposed for NIH, statutorily or administratively, did not compromise NIH’s role in serving the public good. And it’s really possible that some of those things will be proposed,” Dehoney said.

“But I think … both Republican and Democratic administrations, they don’t have any interest at the end of the day in slowing down medical progress.”