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Bright's ouster shines light on months of HHS turmoil

After news broke Tuesday that Dr. Rick Bright had been suddenly dismissed from his position leading an office working on a coronavirus vaccine, top officials huddled with staff and insisted there was nothing to see.

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Jeremy Diamond, Kaitlan Collins
Matthew Hoye, CNN
CNN — After news broke Tuesday that Dr. Rick Bright had been suddenly dismissed from his position leading an office working on a coronavirus vaccine, top officials huddled with staff and insisted there was nothing to see.

"The media got it wrong and this is a great opportunity for him," a source familiar with the internal discussions told CNN, summarizing the message from top officials spinning Bright's move to a narrower position at the National Institutes of Health.

But the next day, Bright upended that narrative, alleging that his ouster was retaliatory and stemmed in part from his opposition to widening the availability of a coronavirus treatment with dubious scientific merits that President Donald Trump had repeatedly promoted. About an hour after his allegation became public, his acting successor sent a tersely worded email to Bright's former staff at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) asking them to "not respond to outside inquiries regarding the recent news."

"Please do not discuss the current situation," wrote Gary Disbrow, according to an email obtained by CNN.

Bright's decision to go public is now exposing months of turmoil inside one of the key divisions at the Department of Health and Human Services charged with responding to the coronavirus pandemic. His allegations raise serious questions about political bias creeping into the government's response to the pandemic and the extent to which Trump's preferences for a drug overshadowed its scientific merits.

Countering Bright's allegations of political retaliation, five current and former administration officials are now also leveling a range of allegations against Bright, including: accusing him of poorly managing his office, mistreating staff and failing to consult his superiors on consequential decisions. Four current and former administration officials say Bright's removal had been a long time coming and preceded any disagreements over the use of hydroxychloroquine.

The White House has yet to respond directly to his allegations published in a lengthy statement Wednesday, but Health and Human Services spokeswoman Caitlan Oakley pushed back on Bright's claim of retaliation. She said he had requested the Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to secure doses of chloroquine for the strategic national stockpile.

While BARDA is a little-known government agency, it is internally powerful, given the office's sizable budget and purchasing power -- and under Bright, it was working to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

One current and one former Health and Human Services official said Bright faced numerous complaints from staff who accused him of mistreating employees including fits of anger in which he "slammed things down on tables and broke binders." In another instance, he tore up a staffer's work in front of them, calling it junk, the former official said. Some staffers requested reassignments to other offices as a result and the former official said it led to decreased output from the research office.

But Bright's most recent performance review from May 2019, a copy of which was obtained by CNN, offers the most direct rebuttal to the allegations, delivering rave reviews for Bright's management of his office and includes no criticisms. Bob Kadlec, who carried out the review, doled out top marks for Bright's performance, calling his tenure "very successful" and giving him a weighted score of 480 out of 500.

Two officials said Bright's superiors ultimately decided that his management style was hampering BARDA's effectiveness as a key office in the response to the coronavirus and decided to dismiss him from his post, shifting him to a different position at the National Institutes of Health -- a position Bright has not accepted as he fights for his old job.

A current Health and Human Services official said Bright was "temperamental" and "demanding," but said it was the result of his "high expectations."

While some sources suggested Bright has slowed the offices output, Kadlec repeatedly praised both the quality and speed of BARDA's work under Bright's leadership, noting that "BARDA continues to develop and licensure of medical countermeasures at a rate that is well above the industry average and certainly a subject of their envy."

While Bright received the highest score of "5" on all other categories, he scored a 4 in the section entitled "Leading People." Still, Kadlec praises Bright for "effectively" leading his staff and included no criticisms.

The former top Health and Human Services official who hired Bright also defended his work on CNN Thursday morning.

"Dr. Bright is a strong scientist, he is a visionary leader, he's able to make decisions he get things done, and he believes and he stands on strong science," former Assistant Secretary Dr. Nicole Lurie said. "I think this is about something larger than hydroxychloroquine. I think it's really about listening to scientific opinion, scientific perspective and standing up for strong science."

Bright also came under fire recently for what others saw as unilateral decision-making. A person familiar with the dynamic said this likely wouldn't have bothered others in a normal time, but was seen as subversive given the pandemic. Bright had the authority to unilaterally select which companies BARDA would give funding to pursue a certain product. This purchasing power came under scrutiny as the coronavirus outbreak spread throughout the United States -- and the urgency for treatments and a vaccine grew.

Three people familiar with the dynamics said Bright was not consulting others before moving forward with big decisions and felt "he thought he knew what was best."

Now, Bright is fighting to be reinstated in his position. After learning from an assistant over the weekend that he was being removed from his role, he secured a pair of whistleblower attorneys and has said he plans to file a complaint with the Health and Human Services inspector general. Bright does not have access to email any longer and has not been given any details on the role at the National Institutes of Health, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Through his attorneys, Bright said he wants the inspector general to "investigate the manner in which this Administration has politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections as well as efforts that lack scientific merit."

But there is technically no permanent official in that role. Christi Grimm, who has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations since 1999, became principal deputy earlier this year. She took over for Joanne Chiedi, the acting inspector general who retired last year. Chiedi replaced Dan Levinson, the former inspector general who resigned last year. Trump clashed with Grimm after she published a report this month detailing shortages in hospitals across the country.

Amid the back-and-forth of allegations, one clear picture has emerged: that of a top government scientist repeatedly clashing with his politically appointed leaders, including his direct superior Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. That feud worsened in recent months as BARDA and Kadlec's division worked on everything from the development of vaccines and therapeutics to the supplies of medical equipment and personal protective equipment for hospital workers.

But in a Tuesday evening email to BARDA staff obtained by CNN, Kadlec sought to paper over any discord, framing Bright's departure as a "new professional challenge," congratulating him on his leadership at BARDA and saying he would be "instrumental in the effort to accelerate the development of Covid-19 diagnostics" in his new role.

"If you haven't seen and I included below an editorial in today's Washington Post written by Senators Alexander and Blunt," Kadlec said, referring to an editorial by the senators proposing a "Shark Tank" effort to increase coronavirus testing. "We look forward to Rick's role as the chief shark in the 'Shark Tank' of diagnostics. We all wish Rick well and know his success will be ours and the whole Nation's."

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