Chief of VA Research Departs amidst allegations of misconduct, financial indiscretion – BNA

Chief of VA Research Departs amidst allegations of misconduct, financial indiscretion – BNA

Sat, 13 Dec 2003

The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) reports that Dr. Nelda Wray, chief of research at the Veterans Affairs, “leaves office as the VA Inspector General prepares to release results of an investigation into allegations that Wray improperly funneled a $750,000 research grant to her companion, Dr. Carol Ashton; advanced careers of favorites regardless of qualification; and created an abusive work environment based on “intimidation and fear”

Dr. Wray’s short, but tumultuous tenure as chief of research at the VA was punctuated by research scandals. [See: http://www.ahrp.org/infomail/0403/13.php ]

In light of the recent revelations about institutional sanctioning of corrupt practices at the National Institutes of Health–which receives $27.9 billion a year in tax payer money (See: LA Times. 12/7/2003, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-nih7dec07,1,7108097.story?coll=la-home-headlines )

and given the uninterrupted stream of research scandals at the VA, one wonders what propels Congress to award billions of taxpayer dollars to those institutions? If Congress doesn’t use its budget allocation leverage, can’t the Office of Management and Budget step up to the plate? Does no one care how $29.3 billion dollars are being misspent?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Medical Research Chief of Veterans Affairs Research Departs From Office Amid Misconduct Allegations By M. Otto Alexander

The head of the $1.4 billion nationwide research program at the Department of Veterans Affairs has departed from office amid allegations of financial indiscretion, nepotism, and other misconduct, BNA has learned.

Dr. Nelda Wray “is returning to Houston for an indefinite period,” VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Roswell told key staff at the VA’s Washington headquarters in a Dec. 4 memo obtained by BNA.

Deputy Undersecretary for Health Dr. Jonathan B. Perlin, Wray’s immediate supervisor, has stepped in as acting chief research and development officer.

The memo credits “pressing family health concerns” for Wray’s departure.

Wray leaves office as the VA Inspector General prepares to release results of an investigation into allegations that Wray improperly funneled a $750,000 research grant to her companion, Dr. Carol Ashton; advanced careers of favorites regardless of qualification; and created an abusive work environment based on “intimidation and fear”–charges contained in complaints VA staffers filed in September with members of Congress and VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi.

According to numerous sources, Wray refused an offer to resign before the IG makes its findings public in December.

She is officially on leave at her home in Houston, director of VA communications Kerri Childress said. When the health issues resolve, she is slated to work for Roswell on “special projects.”

Mending Fences. The Bush administration recruited Wray in 2002 to run the Office of Research and Development. Sponsoring research projects at the VA’s 115 centers, ORD is one of the largest research funders in the country.

Prior to taking office in January 2003, Wray ran the health-outcomes research unit at the Houston VA Medical Center.

In the wake of Wray’s departure, Perlin refunded and reinstated the 17 basic science projects Wray cancelled against the recommendations of VA peer-reviewers on April 1. Perlin would not tell BNA if other decisions made by the former chief officer would be reversed.

The cancellation signaled the start of Wray’s efforts to shift VA research away from hard science in favor of outcomes research and to overhaul the “merit review” process by which the VA decides what studies to fund.

Among other changes, Wray sought to put funding decisions in the hands of ad hoc expert panels, instead of the VA’s traditional standing peer review committees.

Her actions triggered a storm of protest from VA researchers, numerous science organizations, and even members of Congress.

Hospital administrators said the changes would drive VA’s finest physicians–many of whom came to the VA to do research–out of the system.

The outcry drew unflattering media coverage of VA’s research program and sharp questions at congressional hearings. The inspector general launched its investigation this fall, sources told BNA.

Perhaps signaling a desire for reconciliation, Perlin told BNA that Dr. Mindy Aisen, deputy chief research and development officer, “and I are ardent believers in the sanctity of the merit review process.”

Wray could not be reached for comment.

By M. Alexander Otto

Copyright 2003, The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Washington, D.C.

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