WASHINGTON – Congressional committees have begun investigating allegations that female officers inside the nation's premier health research agency were sexually harassed and their concerns about safety in human experiments disregarded.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that sworn, videotaped depositions by two female National Institutes of Health (search) officers and other documents detailed allegations of unwanted kisses and hugs, profane e-mails and the sending of a red bra from a male supervisor to a former female subordinate after a falling out.
One of the woman testified that hostility was so bad inside the agency that employees were fearful to raise safety concerns about human experiments, AP reported.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, informed the NIH about their investigations in recent days.
Grassley cited the AP report and told NIH that his own investigators also have talked to NIH employees about sex harassment, including one worker who "characterized the NIH as the equivalent of a gentleman's club."
NIH says it is cooperating with both inquiries, while also aggressively investigating itself any allegations involving sexual harassment.
"We will cooperate fully with Congress on any and all of their inquiries," spokesman John Burklow said Wednesday. "Sexual harassment will not be tolerated at NIH. We are committed to ensuring all employees are treated with dignity and respect."
Grassley's and Barton's committees have for months been investigating problems inside the NIH relating to AIDS research (search), particularly a study in Uganda that was later used by the Bush administration to justify sending hundreds of millions of dollars of the drug nevirapine to Africa to protect babies from getting AIDS from infected mothers.
Earlier this month, an independent scientific review concluded that while that study violated federal patient safety rules, it was still conducted well enough to support its conclusions that the drug was safe and useful.
Barton's committee wrote NIH that it was willing to accept that panel's findings but still intended to investigate "NIH's review of the research trial itself and of the concerns raised about it." The panel's top Democrat, John Dingell of Michigan, also signed the letter in support of the investigation.
Committee aides said the review would include the allegations of sexual harassment, some of which were made by NIH employees who raised safety concerns about the Uganda study.
Grassley requested several documents from NIH concerning sexual harassment and said he also had asked the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general to monitor NIH's own efforts to investigate sexual harassment to ensure they are "objective, complete and thorough."