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Ethics Complaint Filed to Force Trump's Covid-19 Vaccine Czar—a Former Pharma Exec—to Submit to Ethics Rules

"Trump has put a pharmaceutical executive in charge of handing out the government contracts for coronavirus vaccine development. How could this possibly go wrong?"

U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Moncef Slaoui, the former head of GlaxoSmithKlines vaccines division, speaks about coronavirus vaccine development in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," the Trump administration is announcing plans for an all-out effort to produce and distribute a coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Moncef Slaoui, the former head of GlaxoSmithKlines vaccines division, speaks about coronavirus vaccine development in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," the Trump administration is announcing plans for an all-out effort to produce and distribute a coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A pair of consumer watchdog groups on Thursday filed a formal federal ethics complaint stating that President Donald Trump's so-called "Vaccine Czar"—a former pharmaceutical executive with deep personal investments in the industry—should be forced to submit to the same conflict of interest and financial disclosure rules as other government officials charged with overseeing large sums of taxpayer money, especially as he stands to personally profit from his duties.

"Slaoui's blatant ties to Big Pharma, including the very drug corporations he's funneling money to, should make even the Trump administration blush."
—Margarida Jorge, Lower Drug Prices Now

The complaint—filed by Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now filed with the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of Government Ethics (OGE)—targets Moncef Slaoui, selected by Trump earlier this month to help lead what the White House dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," a task force charged with leading the government's effort to find treatments and a possible vaccine to the Covid-19 virus.

A former executive at pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, Slaoui has refused to divest his stock holdings in the company—"This is my retirement," he said earlier this month—and Trump has labeled him as a private contractor instead of a government employee. The complaint, however, says Slaoui—given that he will be in charge of awarding contracts and directing large sums of public resources—should be labeled as a special government employee (SGE) which would then require stricter ethical standards and disclosure requirements.

According to the complaint:

The contractual arrangement that regards Slaoui as merely a private contractor appears unwarranted and designed primarily to allow Slaoui to maintain an extensive web of conflicting financial interests without the need to divest of, recuse from or disclose those conflicting interests. This would otherwise constitute a violation of federal ethics laws. The arrangement provides Slaoui with the opportunity to enrich himself, his colleagues and his employers, and calls into question the integrity of critically-important official actions that will be taken under the Warp Speed program.

"Slaoui is a venture capitalist in the pharmaceutical industry who personally stands to make a fortune from determining winners and losers in the race to develop a vaccine, yet he is exempt from ethics laws that prevent self-dealing," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. "It is deeply troubling that Trump has appointed a pharmaceutical executive and private contractor to help award these massive and critical government contracts."

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In most similar situations, explained Public Citizen in a statement, "people who are appointed to lead government programs or instruct other government employees, and who are supervised by senior government officials, are classified as government employees subject to conflict of interest laws and disclosure requirements. This is to ensure that employees or agents working on the government's behalf serve the public interest."

"Slaoui's blatant ties to Big Pharma, including the very drug corporations he's funneling money to, should make even the Trump administration blush," said Margarida Jorge, campaign director of Lower Drug Prices Now.

"The Trump administration continues to put corporate cronyism and profits for pharmaceutical executives ahead of public health," Jorge added. "To guarantee affordable medicines for COVID-19, Congress must block monopoly control over prices and pass safeguards that prevent corporations and shareholders from profiteering off the pandemic."

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