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Office of Special Counsel says removal of Health whistleblower was retaliatory, lawyers say

Ousted scientist speaks to "60 Minutes"
Ousted scientist speaks to "60 Minutes" 03:07

Attorneys for a former Department of Health and Human Service official who was removed from his position said Friday that the federal Office of Special Counsel has determined the removal was retaliatory. Attorneys for Dr. Rick Bright, a vaccine expert who said he was removed from his position after he tried to limit COVID-19 treatments touted by President Trump, requested Health and Humans Service stay his removal from office.  

Bright filed a whistleblower complaint on Tuesday. In a "60 Minutes" interview with Norah O'Donnell that will air on May 17, Bright disputed Mr. Trump's characterization of him as "disgruntled."

"I am frustrated at a lack of leadership," Bright said. "I am frustrated at a lack of urgency to get a head start on developing lifesaving tools for Americans. I'm frustrated at our inability to be heard as scientists. Those things frustrate me."  

In a statement, Bright's lawyers said the Office of Special Counsel had made the "threshold determination" that Health and Human Services violated the Whistleblower Protection Act in moving to remove Bright as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). The attorneys, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, urged HHS Secretary Alex Azar to agree to this request.

"Dr. Bright should not be denied the right to have his complaint investigated fully and fairly before he is formally transferred to NIH - a move that will harm not only him, but the country as well," Katz and Banks wrote, referring to the attempt to transfer Bright to a position at the National Institutes of Health.

"This country is in an unprecedented health crisis and needs the expertise of Dr. Bright to lead the nation's efforts to combat COVID-19. We hope the Secretary will grant the Special Counsel's request and allow Dr. Bright, one of nation's leading vaccine scientists, to return to his position leading BARDA and serving his country," Katz and Banks continued.

Health and Human Services spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told CBS News in a statement that "this is a personnel matter that is currently under review. However, HHS strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright." 

The complaint by Bright alleged he was removed as director of BARDA soon after the publication of an article about chloroquine that Bright admits he was a source for. 

"Dr. Bright opposed the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as lacking scientific merit, even though the Administration promoted it as a panacea and demanded that New York and New Jersey be 'flooded' with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA," the complaint reads. 

"Dr. Bright felt an urgent and compelling need to inform the American public that there was insufficient scientific data to support the use of these drugs for COVID-19 patients — particularly given their importation from factories abroad that had not been inspected by the FDA."

Government officials, he said, "refused to listen," so Bright opted to talk to a journalist. According to the complaint, he believed he had a moral obligation to do what he could to protect the public "from drugs which he believed constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety."

The documents provided to the journalist were "not privileged or classified," according to the complaint.  

Soon after the article about chloroquine was published, Azar and Bright's supervisor, Dr. Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response, removed him as BARDA director "because they suspected he was the source," the complaint said. 

Mr. Trump has repeatedly touted the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus.

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