(CNN) — The investigative office reviewing the whistleblower complaint of former federal vaccine chief Dr. Richard Bright has determined there is reason to believe he had been removed as retaliation, Bright’s lawyers said Friday.
The office is recommending he be reinstated during the investigation, the lawyers said. Bright had led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority since 2016 when he was reassigned last month to a narrower position at the National Institutes of Health.
The Office of Special Counsel “advised that in light of this determination, it would contact the Department of Health and Human Services (‘HHS’) to request that it stay Dr. Bright’s removal as Director of BARDA for 45 days to allow OSC sufficient time to complete its investigation of Bright’s allegations,” Bright’s lawyers said in a statement.
“This is a personnel matter that is currently under review. However, HHS strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright,” said Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokeswoman.
Bright filed a whistleblower complaint earlier this week, alleging that his early warnings about the coronavirus were ignored and that his reluctance to make “potentially harmful drugs” available for treating Covid-19, including hydroxychloroquine, eventually led to his firing.
“I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government,” Bright told reporters on Tuesday.
Bright said in the complaint he raised urgent concerns about shortages of critical supplies, including masks, to his superiors in the Trump administration but was met with skepticism and surprise.
President Donald Trump said Friday that Bright “seems like a disgruntled employee” and has previously alleged Bright is seeking to help Democrats by filing a whistleblower complaint.
“If people are that unhappy, you shouldn’t work,” Trump said Friday. “To me, he’s a disgruntled guy and I hadn’t heard great thingns about him.”
Bright disputed Trump’s claim that he was “disgruntled” during an interview with CBS News on Friday.
“I am not disgruntled, I am frustrated at a lack of leadership,” Bright said. “I am frustrated at a lack of urgency to get a head start on developing life saving tools for Americans. I’m frustrated at our inability to be heard as scientists. Those things frustrate me.”
Bright also said that if supplies had been distributed sooner, doctors and nurses who have died from coronavirus might still be alive.
“We see too many doctors and nurses now dying, and I was thinking that we could have done more to get those masks and those supplies to them sooner,” Bright said. “And if we had, would they still be alive today?”
Bright reiterated his belief that he was retaliated against because he raised concerns over using hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, adding that the decision to assign him to the NIH “didn’t make sense.”
“To take me out of our organization focused on drugs and vaccines and diagnostics in the middle of a pandemic — the worst public health crisis that our country’s faced in a century — and decapitate the BARDA organization, to move me over to a very small, focused project of any scale, of any level of importance is not responsible,” Bright said.
The administration has maintained that Bright was moved to the new National Institutes of Health role to work on testing. An HHS spokesperson told CNN on Tuesday that the administration is “deeply disappointed” Bright has not taken up his new role yet, but Bright’s representatives say he has not been given any details about the position.
Bright is slated to testify on Capitol Hill next Thursday.
His decision to go public with his concerns last month exposed months of turmoil inside one of the key divisions at HHS charged with responding to the coronavirus pandemic. His allegations raised serious questions about political bias creeping into the government’s response to the pandemic and the extent to which Trump’s preferences for a drug overshadowed its scientific merits.
In his whistleblower complaint, Bright says he raised concerns about US preparedness for coronavirus starting in January but was met with “indifference which then developed into hostility” by leaders at HHS.
After he initially aired his complaints, administration officials leveled a range of allegations against Bright, including accusing him of poorly managing his office, mistreating staff and failing to consult his superiors on consequential decisions. But Bright’s most recent performance review, from May 2019, a copy of which was obtained by CNN, delivered rave reviews for his management of his office and included no criticisms.
His attorneys argue that Bright’s removal from his post amounts to a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act, claiming that Bright “has engaged in numerous instances of protected activity.”
In the complaint, he says he is seeking reinstatement as BARDA’s director and asking for a full investigation.