Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, stands on the podium before President Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House on Sept. 18.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, stands on the podium before President Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House on Sept. 18. Alex Brandon / AP

Democrats Ask Watchdog to Review Hiring of ‘Operation Warp Speed’ Chief Scientist 

Lawmakers asked for a review of the contract award process and position classification.

Democratic lawmakers announced on Friday they asked a government watchdog to investigate the process by which the top adviser for the Trump administration’s multi-billion dollar public-private partnership for coronavirus vaccine development was hired, due to ethics concerns. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., wrote to the General Services Administration inspector general seeking a review of the circumstances under which Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief scientist for the administration’s “Operation Warp Speed,” was hired as a government contractor. Leadership for the initiative also includes Gen. Gus Perna, a four-star general who serves as the commanding general of the Army’s Materiel Command, the chief operating officer. Slaoui, an immunologist, has been under scrutiny since he was brought on in mid-May as he is a former pharmaceutical executive. The Health and Human Services Department told The Washington Post that he adheres to “our robust department ethical standards.”   

If Slaoui were a federal employee, he would “be required to fully disclose and divest all of his holdings that present a potential conflict of interest,” Porter and Warren wrote. “But instead, he was brought on as a contractor via a contract with Advanced Decision Vectors LLC, under which he was reportedly paid $1 for his services. As a result, he is exempt from federal ethics rules, allowing him to retain his [GlaxoSmithKine] stock and other holdings.” 

They also noted that even though Slaoui is only accepting $1, his housing expenses and those of several other pharmaceutical executives working on the vaccine initiative are being covered under the contract, as Politico reported in July.

Therefore, the lawmakers would like the GSA IG to review the process by which the HHS chose Advanced Decision Vector LLC as the contractor for “Operation Warp Speed” and whether or not Slaoui (or any others under contract by the company) were misclassified as contractors and should be deemed federal employees instead. 

“We must do all that we can to make certain that Americans can trust the vaccine development process and have confidence that the individuals running the process are acting in the public interest, not their own financial interests,” Warren and Porter wrote. 

The GSA IG’s office declined to comment. 

Warren, Porter, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., also wrote to Slaoui last week with a list of questions about these “unsolved financial conflicts of interest and [his] unusual consulting arrangement.” They noted this was not their first time advancing such inquiries. His contract––one of several of the Trump administration’s pandemic related contracts being questioned by lawmakers and outside groups––has been a subject of concern for a while. 

Shortly after Slaoui was brought on, the watchdog organizations Public Citizen and advocacy organization Lower Drug Prices Now wrote to the HHS acting IG and Office of Government Ethics arguing that he should be classified as a “special government employee,” so he would be subject to conflict-of-interest and disclosure requirements.

However, the acting HHS IG rejected their complaint in July, stating that “special government employees” are only allowed to serve for a maximum of 130 days (Slaoui will likely stay longer). The IG didn’t address the conflicts-of-interest issue, The Washington Post reported

“Dr. Slaoui's financial entanglements once again highlight serious ethics concerns in the Trump administration coronavirus response team that merit investigation,” Donald Sherman, deputy director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Government Executive on Monday. “The Trump administration has repeatedly bent or broken government ethics rules related to its coronavirus response including Jared Kushner leading a shadow coronavirus taskforce and Marc Short's financial conflicts of interest. Sadly, not even a global pandemic can curb the Trump administration's gross misconduct and abuse of government power.” 

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