More MS news articles for February 2000

CDC Misled Congress on Spending, Records Show

By Joe Stephens and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 2, 2000; Page A1

Seven years ago a long-distance runner from New Mexico caught cold, struggled for breath as liquid flooded her lungs, then suddenly died. Her fiance died five days later, followed by more than two dozen other residents of the American Southwest.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified the killer as a previously unknown strain of hantavirus, a mouse-borne disease with a staggering mortality rate. An alarmed Congress responded by giving the CDC up to $7.5 million a year to fight it.

At least, Congress thought it did.

Instead, apparently without asking Congress, the CDC spent much of the money on other programs that the agency thought needed the funds more, interviews and documents show. One official said the total diverted is almost impossible to trace because of CDC bookkeeping practices, but he estimated the diversions involved several million dollars.

Regardless of the amount, the CDC's spending practices have troubled officials within the agency and on Capitol Hill. Agencies are supposed to give Congress accurate reports about the spending of taxpayer dollars. But in the past year, disclosures about secret diversions of CDC funds have incensed some members of Congress and fueled debate over who knows best how to spend federal funds--the lawmakers who hand out the cash or the bureaucrats who run the government day-to-day.

In the case of hantavirus, records show that once Congress voiced its willingness to fund CDC research, the agency reported year after year that it had spent up to $7.5 million annually battling the deadly germ.

"If they said $7.5 million was spent on hantavirus, then they should have spent $7.5 million on hantavirus," said Mike Myers, who until 16 months ago managed CDC accounts for the House Appropriations Committee. "I would have been outraged."

Keith Newbold of Colorado, whose 38-year-old wife, Cheri, died from hantavirus two years ago, said the CDC's decision to redirect research funds "surprises me and disturbs me." He said victims and their families had waited anxiously for new research into the disease but "we were led to believe the money wasn't there."

Senior CDC officials declined to comment on the hantavirus spending. But the agency acknowledged in an unsigned statement that it had spent an undisclosed amount on other diseases. It said the decision was made under "the budgetary discretion given the director."

The hantavirus diversion is strikingly similar to the CDC's controversial decision to redirect money intended for research into chronic fatigue syndrome--a matter that last year led to calls for a criminal investigation. It also bolsters the accounts of CDC scientists who have complained of loose bookkeeping at the $2.4 billion agency, which works to prevent and control diseases.

An inspector general's audit last year found that the CDC could not account for or defied congressional intent while spending $12.9 million appropriated to study chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating illness characterized by a lack of stamina.

While there was no suggestion that the money was stolen or used illegally, Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) in November asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the agency had violated laws against lying to Congress.

In the aftermath, the CDC promised to restore lost funds and apologized for "a breach of CDC's solemn trust." Director Jeffrey P. Koplan said at the time that it was an isolated incident and that he knew of no other diversions.

Yet documents show that 16 months ago, the head of the hantavirus program told an auditor that he was worried because no one outside the Atlanta-based agency knew of his program's spending practices. He said other CDC managers were scared as well.

"Funds were used consistently to cover other things," explained William C. Reeves, head of chronic fatigue syndrome research. "That is not a bad way to do things. But you do not lie and hide it."

Reeves exposed the manipulation of chronic fatigue money in 1998, saying he refused to participate in a coverup. He charged that his superiors did not consider the disease a serious health threat but were unwilling to air the issue in Congress, which had been heavily lobbied by patients' groups.

Last summer, Koplan promised unprecedented changes. He announced mandatory legal training for all budget managers and placed the viral division--home of the hantavirus and chronic fatigue programs--on budgetary "probation."

"We have learned a valuable lesson through this experience," the agency said in a statement at the time. But the vow failed to appease some in Congress.

"These bureaucracies get so big, they don't care where Congress wants the money to go," Reid said at the time he requested the criminal probe. "They are kind of above it all; they do what they want to do with the money."

As head of the CDC's Special Pathogens Branch, C.J. Peters directs research into hantavirus and other quick-killing germs.

The white-bearded scientist works in a "spacesuit" and an isolation lab, which protect him from exotic viruses. His risky research inspired Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie "Outbreak" and won Peters a prominent spot in the book "The Hot Zone."

"C.J. Peters could swim through a bureaucracy like a shark," wrote author Richard Preston. But auditor's notes, obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act, depict Peters not as a predator but as a frustrated and fearful bureaucrat.

An auditor prepared the memorandum during the inquiry into chronic fatigue funding. It quotes Peters as saying years of budget problems peaked in 1997 when the CDC slashed a quarter of his funding.

Even worse, Peters told the auditor, he was not told of the cuts until more than 10 months into the fiscal year, when most of that year's funding had already been spent. "He was very upset," the auditor wrote.