Health officials tried to circumvent public records laws, lawmakers say

House Republicans on Tuesday accused officials at the National Institutes of Health of orchestrating “a conspiracy at the highest levels” of the agency to hide public documents related to the origins of the Covid pandemic. And lawmakers vowed to expand an investigation that uncovered emails in which top health officials spoke openly about trying to evade federal records laws.

The latest allegations — which come just days before a House committee is expected to publicly question Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a former top NIH official — represent one front in a growing push by lawmakers to connect American research groups and the country's leading medical research agency with the onset of the Covid pandemic.

So far this push has produced no evidence that American scientists or health officials had anything to do with the coronavirus outbreak. But the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic has released a series of private emails that suggest at least some NIH officials have deleted messages and tried to evade public records laws in the face of scrutiny over pandemic.

Even those NIH officials whose job it was to produce documents under the Freedom of Information Act may have helped their colleagues avoid their obligations under that law, several emails suggest. The law, known as FOIA, gives people the right to obtain copies of federal documents.

“I learned from our foia lady here how to make emails disappear after I have been foia but before the research begins, so I think we are all safe,” wrote Dr. David Morens, a former senior advisor to Dr. Fauci. February 2021. That email chain included Dr. Gerald Keusch, a scientist and former NIH official, and Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit virus-hunting group whose work with Chinese scientists has attracted the attention of legislators.

“I also deleted most of the previous emails after sending them to Gmail,” Dr. Morens added, referring to his personal Gmail account.

In another email, on an op-ed he was helping prepare in July 2020, Dr. Morens reassured his aides that sending notes about a sensitive government grant to his official email account was OK because ” I've talked to our people about FOIA” and “I should be safe from future FOIA.” He added: “Don't ask me how…”.

Those emails came from Dr. Morens' personal email account, which the House committee subpoenaed last month and which lawmakers accused Dr. Morens of using to avoid disclosure of public documents.

House Republicans released additional emails Tuesday that they said implicated a second NIH official in what they described as attempts to evade public records laws.

In one of those emails, from June 2021, Greg Folkers, Dr. Fauci's former chief of staff, was discussing global biosafety practices and referenced an EcoHealth fact sheet. Folkers rendered the group's name as “Ec~Health,” a misspelling that lawmakers said appeared to be a deliberate attempt to prevent the email from being caught in keyword searches to satisfy FOIA requests related to EcoHealth .

In a separate email the same month, Folkers rendered the last name of Kristian Andersen, a prominent virologist who has investigated the origins of the pandemic and faced scrutiny from lawmakers, as “anders$n.”

Experts on records retention policies said the comments reflected federal government agencies' low-transparency practices, with officials strategically misspelling words in emails, missing deadlines for responding to records requests and using addresses and -personal emails to circumvent document laws.

And suggestions in NIH emails that the agency's federal records office was instructing officials on how to subvert the law, they said, were an even more extreme departure from best practices.

“Very rarely have I seen an agency's FOIA office try to help staff circumvent or avoid their obligations,” said Michael Morisy, CEO of the nonprofit news site MuckRock, which helps archive and keep Track public records requests. If federal records officials were actually helping their NIH colleagues make the emails disappear, Morisy said, “that would be really damaging to trust across the government.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, of which NIH is part, did not respond to questions about the agency's FOIA office, but said in a statement that department policy prohibits employees from using accounts personal emails to carry out official activities.

“HHS is committed to the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and compliance with federal records management requirements,” the statement read.

Timothy Belevetz, an attorney for Dr. Morens, said in a statement: “Dr. Morens has a demonstrated record of high quality and important contributions to science and public service.”

During a House committee hearing last week, Dr. Morens, who is on administrative leave from the NIH, denied that the agency had coached him on how to avoid records laws and apologized for some of his e- email, saying he thought they were private comments to friends.

Attempts to contact Mr. Folkers, who left the NIH last year, were unsuccessful. Dr. Keusch called the House committee's allegations “dangerous for science.” Dr Daszak has rejected accusations that he withheld documents relating to the origins of the pandemic.

The recorded revelations arose from the House committee's investigation into the origins of the Covid pandemic, a bitterly controversial issue that has drawn increased attention from lawmakers as they prepare for this year's elections. Many of the emails involve contacts between NIH officials and EcoHealth, whose negligence in handling government grants generated bipartisan anger and led to a proposal last week to exclude it from federal funding.

Recently released emails — including ones that NIH officials mistakenly believed would be safe from outside scrutiny — lend no further weight to theories that NIH-funded lab work in China led to the outbreak of Covid. In several emails, NIH officials and scientists feared that disclosure of their emails and discussions of “political attacks” could backfire on them.

On another note, Dr. Morens lamented the role of the news media in spreading theories about lab leaks and said that scientists willing to reject those theories “don't speak out for fear of being attacked too.” He was defending the idea that the pandemic instead began in an illegal wildlife market in China, a theory that scientists say is supported by early cases and viral genomes.

It's unclear what may be in the emails that have not yet been disclosed, including those from another private account of Dr. Morens that House Republicans say he began using after they began searching for his emails.

The House committee is also investigating Dr. Fauci's record-keeping practices. Dr. Morens' emails reference Dr. Fauci's use of “private gmail” as a way to avoid federal records laws.

Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, said record-keeping practices like those attributed to NIH hinder attempts to improve the functioning of government, calling the conduct “extremely troubling.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *