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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Health officials tried to evade public records laws, lawmakers say

A ward for COVID-19 patients at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens on May 8, 2020. Republican lawmakers are intensifying a push to link U.S. research groups and the National Institutes of Health with the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

By Benjamin Mueller

House Republicans earlier this weekaccused officials at the National Institutes of Health of orchestrating “a conspiracy at the highest levels” of the agency to hide public records related to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the lawmakers promised to expand an investigation that has turned up emails in which senior health officials talked openly about trying to evade federal records laws.

The latest accusations — coming days before a House panel publicly questions Dr. Anthony Fauci, a former top NIH official — represent one front of an intensifying push by lawmakers to link U.S. research groups and the country’s premier medical research agency with the beginnings of the pandemic.

That push has so far yielded no evidence that American scientists or health officials had anything to do with the coronavirus outbreak. But the House panel, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, has released a series of private emails that suggest at least some NIH officials deleted messages and tried to skirt public records laws in the face of scrutiny over the pandemic.

Even those NIH officials whose job it was to produce records under the Freedom of Information Act may have helped their colleagues avoid their obligations under that law, several emails suggest. The law, known as FOIA, gives people the right to obtain copies of federal records.

“I learned from our foia lady here how to make emails disappear after i am foia’d but before the search starts, so i think we are all safe,” Dr. David Morens, a former senior adviser to Fauci, wrote in February 2021. That email chain included Dr. Gerald Keusch, a scientist and former NIH official, and Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a virus-hunting nonprofit group whose work with Chinese scientists has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers.

“Plus i deleted most of those earlier emails after sending them to gmail,” Morens added, referring to his personal Gmail account.

In another email, about an editorial he was helping to prepare in July 2020, Morens reassured his collaborators that sending notes about a sensitive government grant to his official email account was OK because “I have spoken to our FOIA folks” and “I should be safe from future FOIAs.” He added: “Don’t ask how….”

Those emails came from Morens’ personal email account, which the House panel subpoenaed last month and which lawmakers have accused Morens of using to avoid public records disclosures.

House Republicans released additional emails Tuesday that they said implicated a second NIH official in what they described as efforts to evade public records laws.

In one of those emails, from June 2021, Greg Folkers, a former chief of staff to Fauci, was discussing global biosafety practices and referred to a fact sheet from EcoHealth. Folkers rendered the group’s name as “Ec~Health,” a misspelling that lawmakers said appeared to be a deliberate attempt to keep the email from being caught in keyword searches to fulfill FOIA requests related to EcoHealth.

In a separate email from the same month, Folkers rendered the last name of Kristian Andersen, a prominent virus expert who has investigated the origins of the pandemic and has faced scrutiny from lawmakers, as “anders$n.”

Experts on record retention policies said the comments were reflective of poor transparency practices across federal government agencies, with officials strategically misspelling words in emails, missing deadlines for responding to records requests and using personal email addresses to evade records laws.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, of which NIH is a part, did not respond to questions about the agency’s FOIA office but said in a statement that department policy forbids employees from using personal email accounts to do official business.

“HHS is committed to the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and adherence to federal records management requirements,” the statement said.

Timothy Belevetz, a lawyer for Morens, said in a statement, “Dr. Morens has a demonstrated record of high quality and important contributions to science and to public service.”

At a hearing of the House panel last week, Morens, who is on administrative leave from the NIH, denied that the agency had instructed him on how to avoid records laws and apologized for some of his emails, saying that he thought they were private comments to friends.

Attempts to reach Folkers, who left the NIH last year, were unsuccessful. Keusch has called the House panel’s accusations “dangerous to science.” Daszak has rejected allegations that he had withheld documents related to the origins of the pandemic.

The record-keeping revelations grew out of the House panel’s investigations into the origins of the COVID pandemic, a bitterly contentious issue that has drawn more attention from lawmakers as they prepare for elections this year. Many of the emails concern contact between NIH officials and EcoHealth, whose lapses in handling government grants have generated bipartisan anger and led to a proposal last week to bar it from federal funding.

The House panel is also investigating Fauci’s record-keeping practices. Morens’ emails make reference to using Fauci’s “private gmail” as a way of avoiding federal records laws.

Scott Amey, general counsel at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, said record-keeping practices like those being ascribed to the NIH set back attempts to improve the functioning of government, calling the conduct “extremely concerning.”

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