Democrats demand investigation after whistleblower complaint on new coronavirus

The whistleblower reportedly claims lack of training and protective gear.

February 28, 2020, 1:11 PM

Democrats are demanding a briefing from the Trump administration next week and urging an inspector general investigation after a whistleblower working for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel reportedly alleging that more than a dozen employees were sent to receive the first Americans repatriated from Wuhan, China, without proper training or protective gear for new coronavirus infection control.

In this Jan. 29, 2020, file photo, personnel in protective clothing approach an aircraft used to evacuate government employees and other Americans from Wuhan, China, after it arrived at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, Calif.
Mike Blake/Reuters, FILE

In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal and Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., asked the secretary for a “complete, immediate response to the serious concerns that have been raised about potentially dangerous management of the coronavirus.”

The Democrats noted that they were “alarmed to learn from a whistleblower” that HHS allegedly deployed human services workers, including staff from the U.S. Repatriation Program within the committee’s jurisdiction “to interact with Americans evacuated because of coronavirus outbreaks.”

“In particular, we would like a response to the allegations that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) used human services staff without proper training or equipment to interact directly with individuals exposed to coronavirus in quarantined areas, and the possibility that management decisions at HHS could have contributed to the spread of the virus within the United States," Neal and Gomez wrote.

ABC News has not reviewed the complaint, and lawyers representing the whistleblower have refused to provide it. However, Ari Wilkenfeld, one of the whistleblower's attorneys, told ABC News that the article by The Washington Post accurately describes the allegations laid out in the complaint.

In this Jan. 29, 2020, file photo, Rep. Richard Neal speaks at the House Democrats 'Moving Forward Framework' infrastructure bill meeting in Washington, DC.
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/REX via Shutterstock, FILE

The Oversight Subcommittee of Ways and Means reviewed the complaint, and told ABC News there’s too much identifying information in it to release it publicly, and the committee is working to protect the identity of the whistleblower.

“The whistleblower alleges that staff were sent into quarantined areas ‘without personal protective equipment, training, or experience in managing public health emergencies, safety protocols, and the potential danger to both themselves and members of the public they came into contact with," the letter to Azar states.

The lawmakers also said they were “deeply troubled” that HHS “seems to have ignored valid public health concerns” and by reports that the department “immediately retaliated against a whistleblower instead of taking action to protect its staff and the public from being exposed to a potentially fatal virus.”

HHS Secretary Alex Azar, testifies during the House Ways and Committee hearing on the Health and Human Services FY2021 budget in Wasington DC., on Feb. 27, 2020.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Newscom

According to the letter, which appeared to quote the whistleblower complaint, when HHS staff raised safety concerns, they were “admonished for ‘decreasing staff morale,’ accused of not being team players, and had their mental health and emotional stability questioned.”

The letter raises the point that the potentially-exposed HHS employees “have subsequently been interacting with the public, including taking commercial air flights and returning home to their families, without being tested for the new coronavirus or taking other precautions.”

“We do not have any information on whether these staff are being monitored for exposure to the virus, or whether HHS continues to put staff and the public at risk through inappropriate actions relating to quarantined individuals who may have coronavirus,” Neal and Gomez noted.

Similar letters were also sent to Gene Donaro, the Comptroller General at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, as well as Christi Grimm, the principal deputy Inspector General at HHS.The letter to Grimm reveals that the staff sent to repatriate U.S. citizens from Wuhan worked in the Administration for Children and Families.

“The Committee wants to be assured that HHS is taking every step possible to protect its employees, and the American public, from exposure to COVID-19,” the letter states. “We also want to ensure that HHS is seriously addressing employees’ concerns about their health and safety and is not endeavoring to intimidate, impede, or retaliate against employees who raise concerns.”

Neal and Gomez ask the inspector general to conduct an investigation “into all aspects of the deployment of ACF personnel to quarantined areas.”

Tesia Williams, OIG spokeswoman said the details of the review are still being coordinated at this time, but the office will provide more information “when it becomes available.”

“Protecting the health and well-being of people across the country is a mission we take seriously,” Williams said. “We have been monitoring the situation very closely and will conduct a comprehensive review of HHS’ coronavirus response efforts.”

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, was first reported by The Washington Post on Thursday.

"We are hopeful that Congress and the OSC will investigate this case in a timely and comprehensive manner," Wilkenfeld told ABC News in a statement. "This matter concerns HHS's response to the coronavirus, and its failure to protect its employees and potentially the public. The retaliatory efforts to intimidate and silence our client must be opposed."

Moreover, a spokesperson for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel - a permanent independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency - confirmed to ABC News that they have received the whistleblower's complaint as described in The Washington Post, and that the case has been assigned.

When asked for comment, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told ABC News: "We take all whistleblower complaints very seriously and are providing the complainant all appropriate protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act. We are evaluating the complaint and have nothing further to add at this time."

ABC News' Sophie Tatum and Katherine Faulders contributed to this report

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