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Topeka Capital-Journal: Drug Company Harasses Honest Whistleblower

January 10, 2006
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By Louis Clark, GAP President. 

Corporate lobbyists have become freer over the years to buy influence while operating with fewer limitations. The line between bribes and campaign contributions has become too murky, with junkets to golf resorts, flights on private jets, and lavish entertainment having become a useful means to influence important public policies. A deeper examination of the "Beltway" culture, however, would find thousands of government regulators who work hard to ensure that justice is blind, no person or company is above the law, and the nation's public policies are implemented with integrity. Unfortunately, these dedicated public servants are under attack by the same private interests whose lobbyists buy influence with Congress and top government officials. A case that exemplifies this point is that of Dr. Victoria Hampshire, a safety officer at the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM).

Dr. Hampshire was charged with reviewing the safety of a lucrative dog care product manufactured by Fort Dodge, a subsidiary of drug company behemoth Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. She concluded that ProHeart 6, a heartworm drug was not safe and contributed to well over 500 canine deaths. Rather than remedy the drug, Wyeth set out to discredit Dr. Hampshire, apparently hiring a private investigator to dig up dirt on her in order to force CVM to remove her from the drug review process. Wyeth was granted a private meeting with Dr. Lester Crawford, then-Acting FDA Commissioner, in which it presented 29-slide PowerPoint show about Dr. Hampshire's purported "conflict of interest" as a veterinarian -- a trumped-up charge based on her selling of about $200 worth of animal drugs on the Internet over the course of three years. Following this meeting, she was removed from responsibility for regulating ProHeart 6 without being given the chance to respond to Wyeth's charges. She was also subsequently subjected to an FDA sting operation and secret criminal investigation. That probe completely exonerated Dr. Hampshire, but she was still kept away from any further involvement with Wyeth products. Concerned about Dr. Hampshire's situation and similar stories, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote Commissioner Crawford, stating "it appears that there is a systemic problem with the pharmaceutical industry filing complaints against FDA employees and advisory panel members in an attempt to exclude those with dissenting views so that [the regulated companies] can obtain favorable results from [regulators]."

In a major address on the Senate floor last November, the Iowa senator went on to declare, "Brave whistleblowers have come forward to expose the too cozy relationship between the [FDA] and the drug industry -- Dr. Hampshire's hard work and dedication to science and drug safety placed a bulls-eye on her reputation and career -- The FDA cannot serve the American people and the interests of the drug industry at the same time."

Even after the government investigation cleared Dr. Hampshire, Wyeth continued its campaign to discredit her to others within the veterinarian community. Fortunately, ProHeart 6 is no longer on the market, her regulatory safety concerns have won the day, and the Senate is formally investigating this entire affair.

Disturbed by CVM management's failure to grant her fundamental due process -- the right to confront her accusers -- Dr. Hampshire reluctantly accepted a transfer to another FDA center. Hopefully, Dr. Hampshire will eventually regain all of her previous responsibilities. But a larger problem looms over this country. Her case is just one example of a pattern of unacceptable practices. The chilling impact of this sort of corporate greed, influence, and intimidation threatens the ability of our government to operate incorruptly. Few government employees will subject themselves to possible private surveillance and criminal investigations that place their careers in jeopardy. The pharmaceutical industry, like many others, realizes that most regulators will look the other way or downplay problems rather than suffer such personal agony.

The status quo is not acceptable. The American people must write letters, speak out, vote in protest, petition, and organize in defense of their civil servants. The price of public service for government employees should not be a choice between fearful acquiescence in the face of undue influence or martyrdom. Citizens must remind their leaders -- both elected and unelected -- that the people's government is not for sale to the highest bidders or nastiest intimidators.

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