Watchdog recommends ousted vaccine expert be temporarily reinstated: lawyers

Watchdog recommends ousted vaccine expert be temporarily reinstated: lawyers
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A federal watchdog said it has found “reasonable grounds” to believe that the administration retaliated against a top public health official who says he was ousted after raising alarms about an unverified coronavirus treatment, his attorneys said Friday. 

Attorneys for Rick Bright, former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), said the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) determined that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “violated the Whistleblower Protection Act by removing Dr. Bright from his position because he made protected disclosures in the best interest of the American public.”

The OSC, an independent federal agency, said Bright should be reinstated for 45 days while the agency investigates Bright's case, his lawyers said. Such a recommendation would not be binding, however.

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OSC would not comment, citing an ongoing investigation. 

In a statement to The Hill, HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said the agency "strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright." She would not say if HHS would follow the recommendation, only that "this is a personnel matter that is currently under review."

Last year, the agency recommended President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE remove Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne ConwayPennsylvania Republican David McCormick launches Senate campaign McCormick drawing support from Trump alumni ahead of Pennsylvania Senate bid Christie says Trump, Meadows should have warned him of positive COVID-19 test MORE as White House counselor over repeated violations of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in elections in their official capacity. Trump ignored the recommendation.

The finding comes just days after Bright filed a formal complaint, alleging that his efforts to "prioritize science and safety over political expediency" rankled political leaders across the administration and directly resulted in his ouster.

Bright had been in charge of BARDA since 2016 until last month, when he was reassigned to a narrower position at the National Institutes of Health to develop new point-of-care coronavirus testing platforms.

BARDA is a small agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that was created in 2006 to help invest in drug and vaccine development projects for pandemic diseases such as Ebola and Zika. The agency is expected to be at the forefront of public-private partnerships to develop a treatment for COVID-19.

"Dr. Bright should not be denied the right to have his complaint investigated fully and fairly before he is formally transferred to NIH — a move that will harm not only him, but the country as well," Bright's attorneys Debra Katz and Lisa Banks said in a statement. "We hope the Secretary will grant the Special Counsel’s request and allow Dr. Bright, one of nation’s leading vaccine scientists, to return to his position leading BARDA and serving his country.”

Updated at 5:14 p.m.