Dr. David Kessler, co-chair of President-elect Biden’s COVID task force, has been chosen to replace Dr. Moncef Slaoui as Chief Scientific Advisor to Operation Warp Speed, who has agreed to stay on a month to help Kessler with the transition. Dr. Kessler had resigned as President Clinton’s Food and Drug Administration Commissioner in late November 1996 after Clinton’s re-election following the controversy of his overbilling travel expenses during his tenure.
The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), an ethics watchdog group, which led the investigation into Kessler’s travel expenses when Kessler was FDA Commissioner, had called upon Biden in a November 18, 2020 press statement not to appoint Kessler as HHS Secretary, who was at that time a leading contender for the post. Instead, Biden chose Xavier Becerra as his HHS Secretary and this appointment appears to be a consolation prize. Notably, the critical position of the Commissioner of the F.D.A. is still vacant.
NLPC’s investigation in 1996 included hundreds of FOIA requests for Kessler’s travel vouchers and itineraries over a five-year period that were turned over the House of Representatives Oversight Subcommittee of the Commerce Committee at the time, which launched an investigation, including a referral to the General Accounting Office.
Following the release of NLPC’s press statement in November, Dr. Kessler retained counsel claiming that NLPC had libeled him about his travel vouchers and demanded a retraction. Through his attorney, Kessler provided NLPC with an internal FDA two-page summary of the investigative reports that concluded Dr. Kessler did not wilfully submit erroneous travel vouchers with respect to his taxi cab receipts, which were submitted by his staff who autopenned his signature and estimated his cab fares. In the end, Dr. Kessler reimbursed the government $850 for overcharged cab fares.
NLPC did not retract its November 18 statement but added the following update:
UPDATE: After we published this press release, we received a letter from Dr. Kessler’s attorney claiming that the circumstances of his travel voucher overcharges recounted in the November 2, 1996, AP story which we excerpted and provided a link to should be retracted. He provided us with a two-page internal FDA document entitled “NOTE TO THE FILE” dated January 24, 1997, from the Deputy Commissioner of Management and Systems that summarized an audit and other reviews that blamed the numerous billing overcharges due to Dr. Kessler’s failure to obtain taxicab receipts on bad advice he received from his staff who autopenned his signature to the vouchers. Specifically, the internal document stated, “the result of this audit revealed no willful intent by the Commissioner or his staff to violate travel or other related regulations of the Agency.” Dr. Kessler’s denial of any intent to violate FDA travel regulations was also mentioned in the earlier AP story and, as NLPC noted in our release, he blamed his staff for the billing errors. We requested copies of the full audits and reviews that the document we were provided allegedly summarized, but we were denied this request. NLPC intends to obtain those documents via a Freedom of Information Act Request.