Whistleblower alleges bullying and ethical lapses in White House science office

The complaint sets out the most detailed allegations to date of alleged unlawful conduct and harassment by Eric Lander, who served in President Biden’s cabinet before stepping down last month. Lander resigned after an investigation found credible evidence that he had bullied staff in violation of the White House’s “safe and respectful work policy”, and he admitted at the time that he had ” caused harm” to colleagues.

This White House investigation was sparked by Rachel Wallace, who had served as general counsel for the office of science before being demoted to assistant counsel. The new complaint was filed by the Government Accountability Project, which represents whistleblowers, on behalf of Wallace and other anonymous OSTP staff.

The complaint was submitted to the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that protects federal employees, as well as to House and Senate committees. The document seeks reinstatement and damages for Wallace and others, and it claims to have identified at least 15 people who reported abuse while working at OSTP, the vast majority of whom were women.

“This case is very disturbing,” the filing said. “Ethics violations were rampant; reprisals were ubiquitous. This proves that toxic workplaces are non-partisan. We urge you to investigate promptly.

A lawyer for Lander strongly disputed this characterization. Although the White House investigation cited inappropriate behavior on Lander’s part, it found no wrongdoing in his demotion of Wallace.

“The White House has thoroughly investigated Ms. Wallace’s reassignment and has concluded that Dr. Lander acted lawfully, as he did throughout his government service,” attorney Michael N said. Levy in a statement. “Any suggestion that Dr. Lander treated someone differently on the basis of gender or race is simply wrong.”

The complaint also alleges that Lander’s behavior was enabled and aided by other senior OSTP officials, and according to people familiar with the allegations, some of those individuals remain employed at the White House. A White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters, said Thursday that “appropriate action” had been taken in Lander’s case and that any complaints filed against any other employees of the OSTP “will be thoroughly investigated”.

After Lander resigned, Biden tapped Francis S. Collins, the recently retired director of the National Institutes of Health, and Alondra Nelson, who had been one of Lander’s deputies, to share his duties until the president appoints a permanent replacement.

Lander, a renowned scientist, developed a close relationship with Biden and the two shared a deep interest in cancer research, with the president’s son Beau having died of brain cancer in 2015. In administration, Lander had oversaw two initiatives critically important to Biden. : the moonshot cancer reboot and the plan to create an advanced research agency to propel breakthrough medical treatments for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and other life-threatening diseases.

Biden announced his intention to nominate Lander on January 15, 2021, and within days the scientist began working full-time at OSTP as a paid consultant pending Senate confirmation. Lander, who was asked during his confirmation process about his treatment of other scientists, especially women and people of color, was not confirmed until late May. During his confirmation hearing, Lander apologized for some of his previous comments about other scientists.

The new complaint alleges that Lander repeatedly ignored Wallace’s warnings about circumventing the law and engaged in actions such as hiring and other management decisions before being confirmed and empowered to do so.

Federal law allows agencies to appoint a person awaiting confirmation to a consultant position, but it limits that person’s authority during that time. Wallace, a 21-year veteran of public service, was appointed general counsel and chief operating officer at OSTP in August 2020 and has provided advice on legal and ethical compliance.

The complaint alleges that Lander authorized staff members to receive funds from outside entities while working at the White House, which Wallace warned violated ethics rules.

The White House official denied Thursday that Lander violated ethical guidelines, saying Congress “has provided multiple avenues for federal agencies to engage with non-federal sources for staffing needs.” The official said those arrangements had been approved by the ethics board.

Wallace first raised concerns about Lander’s conduct with the White House legal counsel’s office on Feb. 3, according to the complaint, describing his alleged disparagement of staffers and alleged disregard for regulatory constraints on consultants.

After Lander was officially sworn in, Wallace made another report to the attorney’s office in June, alleging that Lander was pressuring staff, especially women, to return to work in person, yelling at the minority staff members and disrespecting female employees.

The treatment, Wallace said in an interview, was particularly “heartbreaking” given Biden’s public promise that all federal workers would be treated with respect, a promise meant to contrast with the chaotic, sometimes unpleasant atmosphere that ruled under President Donald Trump.

On his first day in office, Biden told staffers at a swearing-in ceremony, “If you ever work with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, speak to someone, I promise I’ll fire you on the spot. On the spot – no ifs, ands or buts.

“It was heartbreaking for so many OSTP staff who felt betrayed,” Wallace said. “The word ‘hypocrite’ was used frequently by some of my colleagues and peers at OSTP because these big public statements were being made, but fundamentally, at least at OSTP, the opposite was happening.”

Wallace didn’t hear from the White House attorney’s office until four months after his second complaint, when he was told the office considered the matter closed, according to the complaint.

“When people come forward with these kinds of allegations, they need to be listened to,” Wallace said. “They deserve to be listened to and have their complaints investigated immediately.”

The White House has said it is taking all such complaints, including Wallace’s, into consideration and investigating them thoroughly.

The complaint also alleges that Lander retaliated against Wallace, excluding her from meetings, stripping her of her office, and ultimately demoting her to assistant attorney. Lander disputes that allegation, and the White House investigation found no evidence of gender discrimination, deeming Wallace’s reassignment appropriate.

Wallace also complained to other White House officials outside the attorney’s office, and on January 28 was told that a White House investigation had found bullying behavior. and exclusion from Lander in violation of the Safety and Respectful Workplace Policy, the complaint states.

Lander resigned Feb. 7 after those findings were reported by Politico. In his resignation letter, Lander wrote that he was “devastated to have hurt colleagues past and present by the way I spoke to them.”

Corn Wallace said no further corrective action has been taken since then – like reinstating her in her old job – nor had she received a direct apology from anyone in the White House. The White House official said Wallace remains “an active part of the OSTP staff.”

“I’m still in exactly the same position I was in when it all started,” Wallace said. “That hasn’t changed, and there are others who have also been retaliated against and their positions haven’t changed. It’s the same. Same people, same culture.


Washington

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