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Many were waiting to see if and when the new FDA commissioner would make a significant difference in the agency's defensive, stonewalling posture.

A sign came in August, when Andrew von Eschenbach took the step of writing a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, defending the FDA from critical reports about its expenditure of $13 million on retention bonuses for senior employees supposedly about to quit for higher-paid jobs, at a time when the agency has been pleading insufficient funds to intercept contaminated imports.

The letter seemed to say that this wasn't a case of fat cats getting fatter. Rather, he said, over 90% of the $13 million went directly to the agency's docs and scientists. Only 9% went to members of the senior executive service and other managers.

He criticized a Post article that “mischaracterized the many contributions of two senior executives who received bonuses.” One of these was Margaret Glavin, who reportedly received a bonus that was one-eighth of her salary. The commissioner said she “established the FDA's Office of Counterterrorism Policy and Planning and has received two Presidential Rank awards.” OCI director Terry Vermillion got $23,000 but “founded the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations and has led more than 4,600 national and international criminal investigations.”

While von Eschenbach's unusual step was not enough to deter the GAO from launching a wide investigation into whether the federal executives bonus program is being generally misused, it did show a refreshing willingness to get out ahead of a controversy. If the FDA is returning to its former policy of openness, everyone will welcome it. However, this will require reallocation of large resources to its communications areas, so don't hold your breath!

Dickinson is editor of Dickinson's FDA Webview (fdaweb.com)

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