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Climate of alarm described at NIH

Sexual intimidation, safety lapses alleged

WASHINGTON -- Women at the National Institutes of Health faced sexual intimidation and repeated disregard of their concerns for the welfare of patients in AIDS experiments, according to two senior female officers and documents gathered by investigators.

One longtime medical officer at the government's premier medical research agency alleges that harassment and disregard for federal safety regulations are so widespread that employees are afraid to hold up experiments even if they see a safety problem.

Her sworn testimony and other documents were obtained by the Associated Press from a variety of sources inside and outside NIH.

''It can be fairly uncomfortable," NIH medical officer Betsy Smith testified in a recent civil case deposition that has been turned over to federal and Senate investigators. ''There are a number of things that you really don't talk about."

In such a work environment, ''You don't hold up any projects even if you feel there are safety issues for certain projects," she said.

Testimony by Smith and the chief compliance officer for AIDS research, as well as e-mails involving more staff members and several bosses, paint a picture of a sometimes raunchy, profane-language atmosphere inside an agency regarded for its pristine science.

Documents tell of a supervisor sending a red bra to a former female subordinate and of bosses kissing and hugging women. In one instance, a supervisor invited a colleague to a West Coast rock concert and suggested they also visit an AIDS clinic there, so the trip could be charged to taxpayers.

Smith and Mary Anne Luzar, the top regulatory compliance officer for the NIH's AIDS division, recently stepped forward in interviews with investigators and in sworn depositions and expanded upon allegations made last year by an agency whistle-blower, Dr. Jonathan Fishbein. Their videotaped testimony was given in Fishbein's lawsuit against the agency.

Fishbein alleges he is being fired as the AIDS division's chief of human research protection because he raised concerns about patient safety and shoddy science. NIH cites poor performance.

The Senate and the inspector general at the Health and Human Services Department are investigating the allegations. In addition, officials said, the NIH is conducting an internal investigation on sexual harassment.

NIH managers acknowledged problems in the AIDS research program, which pays hundreds of millions of dollars for experiments across the globe. They said they could not address specific allegations because of the investigations, but were taking steps to end any sexual harassment and improve communication among employees when safety issues arise.

''We must be sure our staff works productively and in a timely fashion with our investigators to resolve any issues related to the conduct of our studies, with the highest priority paid to patient safety," said Dr. H. Clifford Lane, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which oversees the AIDS research division.

''Sexual harassment is not tolerated at NIH," Lane said, ''and we are committed to ensuring that all employees are treated with dignity and respect."

The two new witnesses testified in recent weeks to actions they alleged made the workplace intimidating:

Female workers receiving unwanted hugs, kisses, or catcalls in the hallways.

A safety order on a major experiment delayed for nearly two years by supervisors changing or disregarding safety conclusions.

Luzar, the AIDS division's compliance officer, alleged that her bosses frequently sided with the front-line researchers they were financing.

''I think we [safety officials] got in the way and that we were an impediment to the science," Luzar testified. She described the division managers as ''totally unsupportive" of safety concerns and bending to ''tremendous pressure" from drug companies and researchers in the name of trying to cure AIDS.

''I think the culture was certainly strong for a period of time that the ends could justify the means," she testified.

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