FDA public relations contract scrutinized by Congress

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Sens. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) are requesting information on the FDA's contract process, specifically with respect to a no-bid public relations campaign contract.

After the Washington Post uncovered internal FDA communications surrounding the PR contract – awarded indirectly to Qorvis Communications – the $300,000 deal was suspended before any money changed hands.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) called the contract a “sham,” and announced plans to investigate. Just over a month later, Sens. Enzi and Coburn have asked Daniel Levinson, inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, to investigate the matter.

Additionally, Sens. Enzi and Coburn sent a letter dated November 10 to FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, expressing concern over the “apparent disregard for proper and transparent procedure…regarding a contract for a public relations campaign.”

The controversy stems from the way FDA hired Qorvis and apparently circumvented laws requiring competition for government contracts. In this case, FDA awarded the contract to Alaska Newspapers Inc. (ANI) – a corporation owned by Alaska Native – that is eligible for exemption from competing for federal work based on “set-asides.”

Emails revealed by the Post surrounding the deal suggest that the contract was awarded under the premise that ANI would subcontract Qorvis to handle the campaign. Qorvis is not eligible for set-asides and would have had to compete with other agencies for the contract, if not for ANI serving as an intermediary.

“Allegations that the FDA officials steered a no-bid contract toward a Washington public relations firm with ties to agency officials lead us to demand real answers for the American people about FDA's actions,” the senators wrote in the Eschenbach letter.

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