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Congress probes concerns at NIH

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 documents and sworn, videotaped depositions by two female officers at the National Institutes of Health detailed allegations of unwanted kisses and hugs, as well as profane e-mails. They also alleged that a male supervisor sent a red bra to a former female subordinate after a falling-out.

One woman testified that hostility was so high inside the agency that employees were fearful to raise safety concerns about human experiments, the AP reported.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, informed the NIH about their investigations in recent days.

Grassley told the NIH that his own investigators have talked to NIH employees about sexual harassment, including a worker who ''characterized the NIH as the equivalent of a gentleman's club."

The NIH says it is cooperating with both inquiries, while also aggressively investigating 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. . . . 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, particularly a study in Uganda that was later used by the Bush administration to justify sending hundreds of millions of dollars worth 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 to the NIH that it was willing to accept that panel's findings yet 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 asked the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general to monitor the NIH's own efforts to investigate sexual harassment to ensure they are ''objective, complete, and thorough."

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