Millions in vaccine research funds went instead for unrelated office expenses, HHS inspector general says

The Department of Health and Human Services will be holding a press conference today on their coordinated public health response to the 2019 coronavirus (2019-nCoV) on January 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. By Devan Cole, CNN

(CNN) -- Millions of dollars in federal funds earmarked for vaccine development and other public health matters were wrongly used for the removal of office furniture, news subscriptions and other administrative expenses by an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, according to an investigation launched by its inspector general into a whistleblower complaint.

The anonymous whistleblower made a complaint in 2018 that "alleged that (HHS') Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response ... misappropriated millions of dollars that Congress appropriated for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority ... to respond to public health emergencies like outbreaks of Ebola, Zika, and -- now -- Covid-19," according to a letter sent by special counsel Henry Kerner on Wednesday to President Joe Biden detailing the report's findings.

Although the report by HHS's inspector general doesn't include a single estimate of how much money was misspent, it "contains evidence that -- as recently as (fiscal year) 2019 -- approximately $25 to $26 million" was taken from BARDA's funding and improperly used for ASPR expenses, Kerner wrote.

"The report contains evidence that ASPR used BARDA's ... funds -- funds intended for the development of public health countermeasures, like vaccines -- to pay for the removal of ASPR office furniture, ASPR administrative expenses and news subscriptions, legal services used by ASPR, ASPR's internal resource management system, and the salaries of personnel who did not work for BARDA," the letter states.

CNN has reached out to HHS for comment about the report.

BARDA, a small but powerful agency with remarkable purchasing power, has played a critical role in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Though the report brings to light significant failures at the agency in recent years, BARDA is still partly responsible for helping develop at least two vaccines in record time under Operation Warp Speed, which began under former President Donald Trump.

Kerner said the probe by HHS' inspector general into the complaint found that in misusing the funds, ASPR had violated the Purpose Statute, which states that "appropriations must be applied only to the objects for which the appropriations were made except as otherwise provided by law," and potentially violated at least one other federal law.

The misuse of funds was so widespread at ASPR, Kerner wrote, "that there was a name for it within the agency: 'Bank of BARDA.'"

"I am deeply concerned about ASPR's apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funding meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic," he wrote in the letter. "Equally concerning is how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade."

Kerner said HHS' assistant secretary for financial resources and its Office of General Counsel have started a review of the agency's use of BARDA funding from 2015 through 2019 "to identify potential" violations of the Antideficiency Act and that the review should be completed by this summer. The assistant secretary has also employed an outside accounting firm to help audit the use of BARDA funding in recent years.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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