Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Former Director of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Trying to Avoid Breaking Ethics Rules, But Destroying Integrity of an Executive Department Instead

According to an article published last week in the New York Times, the former executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids - William Corr - is attempting to avoid a violation of the new White House ethics policies by arguing that he will recuse himself from all tobacco-related issues. Corr was previously a lobbyist for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and he lobbied on tobacco issues, including FDA regulation of tobacco. The FDA is under the Department of Human Services, to which Corr was recently appointed as the Deputy Director.

A new ethics policy of the Obama administration precludes any individual who has lobbied within the past year from serving in the adminstration. Thus, Corr could not accept the position of Deputy Director of the Health and Human Services Department without violating this ethics policy. In an apparently desperate effort to be able to accept the position, he apparently agreed to recuse himself from all tobacco issues.

According to the article: "The Republican National Committee criticized the Obama administration for violating this new standard in some of its appointments. Mr. Obama’s ... deputy secretary of health and human services, William V. Corr, lobbied for stricter tobacco regulations as an official with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. A senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, conceded the two nominees did not adhere to the new rules. But he said that ... Mr. Corr did not need a waiver because he had agreed to recuse himself from tobacco issues."

The Rest of the Story

In my opinion, a deputy secretary of health and human services who is not able to participate in any discussions related to tobacco is in a position which makes it impossible for him to serve as a leader in this position, and thus he is compromising the integrity of the department by accepting this position.

It's like a deputy director of a social services agency accepting a nomination to lead that agency, but with the proviso that he recuse himself from any issues that relate to welfare.

You simply can't credibly serve as a director of the nation's leading health agency while having to recuse yourself from discussion of anything that relates to the nation's leading cause of preventable death and disease.

In fact, most other issues have some relationship to tobacco. To be sure, funding decisions for the agency are very much related to tobacco policy. Even if Mr. Corr were to recuse himself from making recommendations regarding non-tobacco related aspects of the HHS budget, he is in fact affecting the tobacco budget. Because any money spent for other purposes is not being spent on tobacco. Just as an example, declaring obesity to be a public health priority may mean putting less of an emphasis on tobacco, so Corr could affect tobacco policy even while seemingly recusing himself from any "tobacco-related" issue. Frankly, it's just impossible for him to do that.

It's not like Corr were a lobbyist for funding for some rare disease, and he can easily recuse himself from this issue by not taking part in discussions over a single line-item in the budget for research into this rare disease. Tobacco is a part of all aspects of what the Health and Human Services Department does, and it cannot be separated out as a separate entity that is not at all intertwined with other issues.

The rest of the story is that in an apparent attempt to avoid violating the White House ethics policy, Corr is apparently willing to undermine the integrity of the department.

He should have just said "No."

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