Nominee Advised Biotech Lobby; Ties Omitted in Ethics Filing

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 8, 2009 | Go to article overview

Nominee Advised Biotech Lobby; Ties Omitted in Ethics Filing


Byline: Jim McElhatton, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Obama's nominee at the Department of Homeland Security overseeing bioterrorism defense has served as a key adviser for a lobbying group funded by the pharmaceutical industry that has asked the government to spend more money for anthrax vaccines and biodefense research.

But Dr. Tara O'Toole, whose confirmation as undersecretary of science and technology is pending, never reported her involvement with the lobbying group called the Alliance for Biosecurity in a recent government ethics filing.

The alliance has spent more than $500,000 lobbying Congress and federal agencies - including Homeland Security - since 2005, congressional records show.

However, Homeland Security officials said Dr. O'Toole need not disclose her ties to the group on her government ethics form because the alliance is not incorporated: There's no legal existence so she wouldn't have to disclose it, said Robert Coyle, an ethics official for the Department of Homeland Security.

Analysts say the lack of disclosure reflects a potential loophole in the policies for the Obama administration, which has boasted about its efforts to make government more transparent. They also question lobbying laws that allow such a group to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars without the public knowing exactly how much money each of the companies that belongs to the group contributes, though such arrangements are permitted under the law.

You're not allowing the public to know the full background of this nominee, said Judy Nadler, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. It shouldn't matter whether it's incorporated or not.

Craig Holman, legislative director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Public Citizen, said the lack of disclosure definitely and clearly runs counter to the intent of the law.

Ethics rules require nominees to report any paid or unpaid positions held outside of government, including but not limited to those of officer, trustee, general partner, representative, employee or any consultant of any corporation, firm, partnership or other business enterprise .. Dr O'Toole signed a letter on behalf of the group sent to the White House as recently as March.

Dr. O'Toole declined to comment for this article. Her office referred questions to Mr. Coyle at Homeland Security and to officials for the Alliance for Biosecurity, who said the group is in full compliance with lobbying rules and noted that there were no financial ties between the Center for Biosecurity, where Dr. O'Toole is chief executive, and the lobbying group she help found.

In written testimony to Congress, Dr. O'Toole said the alliance was created to protect the Center for Biosecurity's status as an honest broker between the biopharma companies and the U.S. government.

As undersecretary of science and technology, one of Dr. O'Toole's responsibilities would involve overseeing the department's chemical and biological division, which is in charge of making sure the nation is prepared to defend itself against chemical and biological attacks.

Dr. O'Toole was nominated less than four years after the alliance was formed in 2005. She has served as the group's unpaid strategic director and has signed her name on more than a dozen letters sent to Congress and federal agencies.

The group's letters to policymakers often seek more money for research and vaccines. She signed the letters as the group's strategic director, in addition to listing her full-time paid job as director of the Center for Biosecurity, which is affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh.

The letters, including one that Dr. O'Toole sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, last fall, describe the Alliance for Biosecurity as a collaboration among the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology companies working to develop vaccines, medicines and other medical countermeasures for the nation's Strategic National Stockpile. …

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