The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) misappropriated millions of dollars of funds intended to fund vaccine research and emergency preparedness for public health threats according to an announcement from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC).
OSC said that an anonymous whistleblower reported that the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) misappropriated millions of dollars that Congress appropriated for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to respond to public health emergencies, such as the outbreak of COVID-19.
The HHS Office of Inspector General conducted an investigation that substantiated many of the allegations and found that ASPR had misused funds appropriated for BARDA dating back to fiscal year 2010.
Evidence in the report shows that ASPR used BARDA’s research funds to pay for things such as removal of office furniture, administrative expenses, news subscriptions, legal services and the salaries of personnel who did not work for BARDA. The report noted that the practice was so common that it was known internally within the agency as the “Bank of BARDA.”
The HHS IG determined that ASPR had “violated the Purpose Statute” and “potentially violated the Antideficiency Act.”
An internal review has been initiated to identify potential Antideficiency Act violations, and HHS also hired an outside accounting firm to audit the agency’s use of ARD funding. Both should be done by the summer.
OSC sent a letter to Congress and the White House notifying them of the situation.
“I am deeply concerned about ASPR’s apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funding meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner. “Equally concerning is how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade, even garnering the nickname ‘Bank of BARDA.’ I urge Congress and HHS to take immediate actions to ensure funding for public health emergencies can no longer be used as a slush-fund for unrelated expenses.”