Culture of corruption at the FDA

CULTURE OF CORRUPTION AT THE FDA…. After nearly eight years, it’s tempting to think we probably wouldn’t see any new corruption scandals out of the Bush administration — but think again. Last month, it was the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, where an anything-goes atmosphere led to Caligula-like corruption and debauchery. Today, it’s contract corruption at the FDA.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had an image problem. For months last year the agency had been pummeled by Congress for poor inspections of tainted vegetables, drugs and other products.

FDA leaders decided to hire a contractor for a public relations campaign that would “create and foster a lasting positive public image of the agency for the American public,” according to agency documents.

A competition, as prescribed by government policy, was not held to get the lowest bid for the $300,000 contract. Instead, FDA officials came up with a plan to ensure the work would go to a Washington public relations firm with ties to the FDA official arranging the deal, according to an examination by The Washington Post.

The plan used a circuitous route around the standard government contracting procedures. The contract was awarded in July to Alaska Newspapers Inc., a firm owned by an Alaska Native corporation that does not have to compete for federal work because it qualifies for special set-asides. The idea was for ANI to hand over the work to Qorvis Communications, the Washington firm, documents show. […]

The story behind the FDA’s public relations deal, drawn from interviews and dozens of e-mails obtained by The Post, offers insight into how contract competition requirements designed to get the best deals for taxpayers have often been subverted in recent years for the sake of convenience or to serve narrow interests, according to a congressional study and contracting specialists.

“The story line is as bad as anything I’ve ever heard,” said Steven Schooner, co-director of the government procurement law program at George Washington University. “It’s not transparent. It’s not competitive. It’s not arm’s length.”

House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), which oversees the FDA, added, “The agency chose to use its limited resources to save face instead of saving the public health. This sham of a contract calls into question the integrity of federal contracts awarded to small businesses and Alaska Native corporations.”

The Post article mentioned that Alaska Newspapers Inc. is “owned by an Alaska Native corporation that does not have to compete for federal work because it qualifies for special set-asides.” That’s actually the key take-away here. The FDA was able to execute this clumsy corruption, using an Alaska Native Corporation as a front group, because of legislation that allows tribal companies to serve as no-bid-contract pass-throughs. And who’s responsible for having shaped the law this way? That would be none other than Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska. Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote the definitive piece on the subject for the Monthly a few years ago.

What’s more, the Post piece helps highlight the ways in which the welfare-state nature of Alaska has quietly helped shape the way the federal government does business.

Presumably, we could look forward to this getting considerably worse if Sarah Palin takes national office in January.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.