Unless you are a lawyer who has handled a number of product liability cases, or you work for an automobile manufacturer or for the U.S. government, you may never have heard of a company by the name of Exponent, Inc. In an unusual scenario that raises questions of potential conflict of interest, this company that conducts research on behalf of the pesticide industry has paid a U.S. government agency to help prove some controversial chemicals are safe. The company, Exponent Inc., based in Menlo Park, Calif., is well-known to corporate clients facing product liability claims. In this recent situation, Exponent is trying to refute research showing that even a small amount of combined exposure to two agricultural chemicals, Maneb, a fungicide, and Paraquat, a herbicide, can raise the risk of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the central nervous system.
The federal agency involved is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Federal ethics rules generally prohibit government employees from accepting money from businesses related to their jobs. This is to help ensure that government staffers remain “unbiased” and “free of corporate entanglements.” Although NIOSH has statutory authority to accept “gifts,” it doesn’t utilize that authority to accept corporate donations for research, according to a NIOSH spokeswoman.
It appears Exponent was able to get around the restrictions by donating $60,000 to the CDC Foundation, an independent, 501(c)(3) public charity. I understand the foundation then passed the $60,000 along to NIOSH. While this appears to be legal under existing law, it fails to meet the “smell test.” Congress authorized creation of the National Foundation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1992 to solicit donations from outside the government to help protect public health. It incorporated in 1994.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, the highly respected Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group, finds the arrangement troubling. He had this to say about Exponent acts:
This is a highly questionable and worrisome business relationship between private interests and the government,” Holman said. “The CDC Foundation is a pass through for money from private enterprise that wants something out of the government. And so it is in effect really blurring the line between the monitor and those who are being monitored.
It has always seemed to me that Congress should appropriate adequate funds to governmental departments and agencies so that they wouldn’t have to accept donations from private sources. This is especially true when the agency accepting the private funding has regulatory duties. It seems like it would be hard for an agency to accept a corporation’s money and then have to regulate that company.
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