Friday Night at 8: Those Who Dared

On July 16, 2008, CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) put out a report (warning:  pdf) entitled “Those Who Dared: 30 Officials Who Stood Up for Our Country.

CREW explains:

The actions of those named in this report are as varied as the people themselves and cut across the federal government. Some, like Glenn Fine at the Department of Justice and John Higgins at the Department of Education, are inspectors general who have been the only check on agency-wide corruption, misconduct and undue political influence. Others are included for a single act of courage, such as Army Specialist Joseph Darby who turned over to authorities the now infamous pictures of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who rushed to Attorney General Ashcroft?s hospital bedside to prevent top White House officials from pressuring the Attorney General to approve an illegal surveillance program.

Imagine working in the belly of the beast – in the Bush Administration, imagine the feeling of realization that something is terribly wrong with the way things are working.  And everyone around you seems to be just fine with it all.  Imagine feeling things become more and more wrong, maybe talking with a co-worker about it only to find they think there is something wrong with YOU, imagine how high the stakes suddenly appear — you can lose your job, you can be smeared so badly you will never get another job, or you can even be physically harmed.

And yet these people spoke out anyway.

Some of the names on this list are familiar — Joseph Wilson, Bunnatine Greenhouse, Glenn Fine, James Hanson.  Here are two that may not be so familiar.

GLORIA FREEMAN, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development:

Gloria Freeman was a career HUD contracting specialist who resigned her position in 2005 after repeated clashes with top HUD procurement specialists over their bending of agency contracting rules.

Ms. Freeman specifically objected to department proposals to waive standard procedures in awarding multi-million dollar contracts to the three-person Republican firm of Harrington, Moran and Barksdale Inc. (HMBI) in Fort Worth, Texas.

Ms. Freeman and others at HUD questioned HMBI’s qualifications for the millions of dollars of contracts the firm was awarded.  Ms. Freeman also successfully challenged her supervisor’s proposal that HUD waive the requirement that HMBI post a bond and she subsequently challenged a fifth contract award that HMBI was seeking based on her concern that the small company could not handle more work.

Her supervisors were seeking to avoid a Small Business Administration review of HMBI’s abilities.  Eventually Ms. Freeman was demoted to a policy job with no say in the contracting process and she retired in 2005.

On May 18, 2008, this story was covered by the Washington Post:

The small Texas property-management company had no experience overseeing hundreds of defaulted homes across the country. It did have two former Reagan administration officials at the helm and warm relations with senior Republican appointees at the federal housing agency.

During a few weeks in 2004, the three-employee company, Harrington, Moran and Barksdale Inc. (HMBI), went from no government work to landing $71 million in contracts with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to oversee the upkeep and sale of defaulted homes. It had previously managed a handful of apartment buildings and development projects.

The company’s meteoric rise — and HUD’s willingness to bend the rules to accommodate it — surprised veteran agency contracting specialist Gloria Freeman.

“After you’ve been in the business awhile, you get to know the signs — ‘This is a friend; let’s help him out,’ ” she said in an interview. Not long after Freeman complained to her supervisors, she was asked to return to her previous policy job.

Federal investigators are still sorting through HUD contract awards to friends of Secretary Alphonso Jackson, who resigned last month amid a criminal probe. But some career staff members and agency observers say problems in the agency’s contracting process run much deeper than Jackson and involve officials who promoted certain companies while rebuffing concerns about their performance and qualifications.

Imagine working in a big agency like HUD (which, by the way, was instrumental in the fuck-up that we see now in New Orleans in demolishing public housing).  Imagine knowing the Presidential appointee to head this Agency was an incompetent and corrupt Bush crony, whose management of said Agency made it impossible for career specialists to do their job.  Gloria Freeman ended up having to retire, after being demoted, but her work in exposing this incompetence and illegality and winning some minor battles, ended up contributing to the greater exposure of Alphonso Jackson’s corrupt regime and his eventual ouster.

And then there is Dr. David Graham of the Federal Drug Administration:

Dr. David Graham is the associate director for science and medicine in the Food and Drug Administration’s (“FDA”) Office of Drug Safety.

Dr. Graham played an instrumental role in the withdrawal of the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx from the market in 2004, after he publicly identified the serious risks for heart disease that the drug posed and the FDA’s failure to heed the warnings that his data corroborated.

As lead author on a research project that studied 1.4 million patients, Dr. Graham found that high doses of Vioxx tripled the risks of heart attacks and sudden cardiac death.

Despite his significant findings, Dr. Graham’s superiors urged him to soften his conclusions, attempted to preclude him from presenting his findings to the medical community, and publicly attacked his personal and scientific integrity.

Vioxx was responsible for almost 140,000 cases of serious heart disease from 1999 until 2004.  In November 2004, Dr. Graham testified before the Senate Finance Committee about systemic flaws in the FDA’s system for identifying the risks of drugs both before and after the approval process, asserting that the FDA is “virtually incapable of protecting America” from dangerous drugs.

Dr. Graham pointed to five drugs then on the market for which there were serious safety concerns and which their makers had defended as safe: the anti-cholesterol drug Crestor, the pain medication Bextra, the obesity pill Meridia, the asthma drug Serevent and the acne drug Accutane.

In addition to Vioxx, Dr. Graham has also played a role in the removal of other drugs from the market, including Abbott Laboratories’ Omniflox, Wyeth’s Fen-Phen and Redux, and Warner-Lambert’s Rezulin.

Part of what has made Dr. Graham so effective in raising the alarm early about potentially dangerous drugs is his use of large samples of data, collected by managed- care organizations.  In this way, he has been able to overcome problems in detecting whether side effects of drugs are isolated incidents or evidence of more systemic problems.

From the wonderful site GAP-Government Accountability Project, I learned more about Dr. Graham, and the incredible risks he took and dangers he faced:

Graham’s association with GAP began a year ago, following the FDA’s criminal investigation of scientists working within the Office of Drug Safety (ODS).

The inquiry sought to discover who leaked the truth about Paxil, an antidepressant set for approval for use by teenagers despite epidemiological studies that it had sparked a rise of teenage suicides in Britain.

The FDA banned a key scientist, Dr. Andy Mosholder, from attending a public Advisory Committee meeting to make final recommendations. Later, the agency told him that his attendance was permissible under the condition that he only answer questions from an approved script.

This attempt to suppress information was thwarted when the research was anonymously disclosed to the San Francisco Chronicle. Under intense public scrutiny, the FDA declined approval for unrestricted use of Paxil, and many lives may have been saved. But ODS chief Dr. Paul Seligman continued the investigation to determine the person responsible for leaking the report.

Frightened by threats of incarceration, Graham sought help from GAP officials after being referred by congressional staff and members of the media. GAP Legal Director Tom Devine warned FDA investigators, outlining how they were incurring personal liability by violating laws such as the Whistleblower Protection Act and Anti-gag Statute, resulting in a swift halt of the investigation.

Graham contacted GAP last year when the same FDA managers made attempts to suppress his Vioxx study. Running the bureaucratic gauntlet, he was able to present preliminary results at a conference that sent shock waves through the industry.

Graham’s supervisors privately criticized him for trying to hurt Merck on the basis of “junk science” and “scientific rumor.” Senate Finance Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa) intervened to ensure the research was not suppressed, and scheduled the November 18 hearing.

By Graham speaking out, many lives were saved, and we now know a lot more about the machinations of the FDA than we did before, which makes it much more likely legislation will be passed to fix these agencies.

These are only two examples.  There are others in the areas of education, the military (torture), the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, the GSA and the US Army.

The Executive Branch has complete control over these massive federal agencies that are supposed to protect us, from the food we eat and the air we breathe to the medicine we take and the education our children receive.  I can only imagine the great corruption in those agencies and the bravery it took for these folks to speak out and, in many cases, save lives.

I hope you give the entire Report a read, it’s fascinating information.  It shows the kind of human spirit that will not buckle under in the face of intimidation and threats and slander.  It shows all of us, I think, how we can move forward in taking back our country.

13 comments

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  1. Time to get drunk.

    Yay.

  2. It helps remind me that in our attempts to chronicle all that’s wrong, we often do not notice the heroic acts of individuals who do what’s right.

  3. Just came from banger’s information overload essay–but we all need to know these things.  The situation the whistleblowers found themselves in is infuriating; but their–dare I say it?–heroic refusal to be cowed by the scumbags is uplifting.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    • kj on August 9, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    the sense of detachment, that arrives like a nor’easter, after something like this, is disconcerting, to say the least.  i know that i will never be the same person i was before and a big part of me regrets that very much.  i miss that person.  she was softer. i keep thinking i’ll get better, settle into the new as a thousands times before. but i don’t settle, and i mean that on several levels.

    the love that davidseth talked about in his essay is long gone; i don’t expect for it to return, although it might. on the other hand, there is this miracle of a human being that  is sitting to my right… how did i get so lucky to know him?  and i know this essay isn’t about our experience. we’re just two of the millions that took a public stand and pay the consquences.

    rambling.  will regret posting this.  but as always, i feel both safe and challenged in these essays of yours, NPK, as i struggle along with the rest whg trying to find ways to respond to these years with respect, dignity, compassion and encouragement.

    maybe a donation to NENA or Iraq Moratorium.  

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