The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health have failed to effectively address unprecedented increases in chronic disease rates and deaths. U.S. life expectancy is in a three-year-decline. Troublingly, this failure on the part of our public health institutions coincides with shadowy payments made by the pharmaceutical and food/beverage industries to these federal agencies through their respective foundations, the CDC Foundation (FCDC) and the Foundation for the NIH (FNIH).
—James O'Callaghan, CDC researcher, in "Firm Pays Government to Challenge Pesticide Research," 2011
CrossFit first discovered illegally-concealed corporate donations to the foundations of the CDC and National Institutes of Health in 2018. When Congress created these foundations in the 1990s through the Public Health Service Act, it demanded that they publicly report each year the source, amount and restrictions of each payment they received (NIH requirement, CDC requirement). We searched for such reports from the FNIH and FCDC online and did not find anything remotely in compliance with the law. While the foundations admitted receipt of funds from some major opioid manufacturers, soda companies, and other conflicted parties, they did not fully disclose the extent of the donations or their stated purpose. Some grants were even listed as coming from “anonymous” sources. When we contacted FCDC and FNIH directly, each organization failed to produce any compliant reports, confirming our conclusion that they were violating federal law.
CrossFit’s government relations arm (led by director Russ Greene and lobbyist Brett Ewer) informed Congress of these violations; Congress then instructed the foundations to begin complying with their legal transparency requirements. When the FNIH first heard of this directive’s inclusion in the report on the appropriations bill, they responded with the claim that the directive was not legally binding, promising “if and when Congress puts language into the appropriations bill that directs FNIH to do something, FNIH will do it.” FNIH did not understand, or chose to ignore, that Congress’s 2018 directive precisely reiterated the foundation’s legal obligations pursuant to legislation passed a generation earlier. President Trump signed the appropriations bill containing the FCDC and FNIH-relevant directive into law later in 2018.
CrossFit continued the push for transparency, sending Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the CDC and NIH seeking information regarding the missing congressionally-mandated funding reports. Whereas our legislative efforts targeted future compliance with transparency requirements, our FOIA requests were aimed at historical donations. The CDC partially responded to our request; the NIH ignored it.
—Diana Yassanye, CDC, 2015, in an email discovered through CrossFit's FOIA request
The CDC’s partial response proved they were aware they were “skat(ing) by” with legal transparency requirements; the NIH’s refusal to respond suggested they had even more to hide. On October 4, 2018, CrossFit sued the CDC and NIH’s parent organization, the Department of Health and Human Services, demanding full compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.
Additionally, CrossFit recently discovered similar malfeasance at the USDA and FDA’s foundations and has targeted this behavior with FOIA requests as well. There appears to be a systemic problem of “professional money-laundering,” to use a CDC researcher’s own language. (Congressionally-founded and -funded foundations, though created explicitly to support and fund federal agencies, are not considered federal agencies. They are therefore not subject to standard levels of oversight and accountability, such as the Freedom of Information Act, requiring the targeting of their parent agencies in terms of FOIA requests, rather than the foundations themselves. This area is ripe for reform. Senator Robert Portman has also introduced legislation to make congressionally-mandated public reports more accessible. We support this common-sense legislation: public reports should be public. And we are working with congressional staff to encourage them to include federally-funded and -founded non-profits in this and similar legislation.)
These quasi-governmental foundations often claim to acquire corporate funding without allowing corporate influence. Yet scandals and controversies regarding Coca-Cola, alcohol, pharmaceutical, sugar industry, and pesticide funding at NIH and CDC indicate that this is more of a platitude than the reality. For example, the soda industry’s funding of the CDC and NIH coincided with an NIH effort to insert Coca-Cola’s Exercise is Medicine campaign into medical school curricula—a topic we will expound on later.