NIH Harassment, Lax Safety Alleged

NIH logo over a computer screen
A boss sends a red bra to a former female subordinate who had a falling out with him. Government e-mails distribute profanity and a picture of a partly nude woman. An order to better protect patients in a medical experiment takes two years to complete.

All of that happened inside the National Institutes of Health, the nation's premier medical research agency, according to sworn testimony and other documents obtained by The Associated Press from a variety of sources inside and outside the NIH.

Two senior female officers testified that the NIH workplace is so uncomfortable and intimidating that safety concerns are frequently dismissed and some employees are afraid to speak up.

"It can be fairly uncomfortable," NIH medical officer Betsy Smith said 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.

Documents tell of women being hugged or kissed by bosses, or being subjected to catcalls in the hallway. 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 the top regulatory compliance officer in the NIH's AIDS division, Mary Anne Luzar, stepped forward in interviews with investigators and in sworn depositions in recent weeks and expanded upon allegations made last year by an agency whistleblower, Dr. Jonathan Fishbein. Their videotaped testimony was given in Fishbein's lawsuit against the agency.