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Members of Congress, Aided by CrossFit, Call for Investigation Into Government’s Inaction on Conflicts of Interest at HHS

ByCrossFitNovember 15, 2019

For over five years, CrossFit, Inc. has fought to drive Big Soda out of the health sciences and expose the various levels of corruption compromising the integrity of America’s public health agencies. In 2015, CrossFit revealed Coca-Cola was behind the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), a soda industry front group that blamed chronic disease exclusively on inactivity while casting doubt on the role of nutrition. In 2016, CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman rallied senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill to oppose Coca-Cola’s crooked science. In 2017, CrossFit broke the news that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was in league with Coca-Cola. And in 2018, with information brought to light by CrossFit, Congress reprimanded the CDC Foundation and Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for neglecting to disclose money they had received from Coca-Cola and Pepsi. This was followed by CrossFit suing the CDC and NIH’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), over noncompliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

On Sept. 27 of this year, Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), and Ro Khanna (D-CA) — armed with information discovered by CrossFit — sent a damning letter to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) calling for an investigation into the “lack of responsiveness by HHS to Congressional inquiries” regarding HHS’s ethics and conflicts of interest policies. HHS has refused to answer to Congress. We know HHS has an ethics division, so why has the department been so reluctant to respond to Congress’ questions?

Conflicts of interest and ethics breaches have run rampant at HHS and its subordinate agencies. HHS has done little, if anything at all, to address them. Rep. Connolly’s letter lays out egregious examples:

  • In 2017, then-CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald recused herself from many of her duties due to her investments in the health-care industry. CrossFit broke the news that she collaborated with Coca-Cola when she served as Georgia’s health commissioner, routing $1.4 million of Coca-Cola’s money to programs designed to shift focus from nutrition to exercise.
  • In 2018, The New York Times revealed the NIH solicited $100 million from the alcohol industry to fund a study on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption (i.e., the “Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Disease” trial, or MACH trial). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) staff and alcohol industry representatives maintained “frequent email correspondence” in what appeared to be “an attempt to persuade industry to provide funding for the MACH trial.” Only weeks after The New York Times published its report, STAT News reported the director of the NIAAA “had quashed research demonstrating a link between alcohol marketing and underage drinking as he wooed an industry group to fund another set of studies” and “assur[-ed] a beverage industry lobbyist that such research on alcohol advertising ‘will NOT happen again.’”
  • In 2019, The Washington Post reported on Coca-Cola’s ongoing collaboration with a senior CDC employee to influence the World Health Organization (WHO). During this time, Coca-Cola donated more than $1 million to the CDC Foundation.
  • In 2016, the National Football League (NFL) and NIH established a $30-million partnership to research brain injury. House Energy and Commerce Committee Democratic staff concluded the NFL “inappropriately attempted to influence the selection of NIH research applicants funded by the NFL’s $30 million donation to NIH.” They also found the Foundation for the NIH (FNIH) “did not adequately fulfill its role of serving as an intermediary between NIH and the NFL.”

Rep. Connolly’s letter also notes structural issues with the FNIH, which CrossFit brought to light: namely that the foundation’s chairman, treasurer, and a quarter of its elected board members represent the pharmaceutical industry. And even though the Public Health Service Act requires the FNIH to report “the source and amount of all monetary gifts,” the foundation listed numerous anonymous donations.

The selected conflicts of interest above are illustrative, not exhaustive. They show the level of corruption that has long been commonplace in America’s public health agencies. Reps. Connolly, Pingree, and Khanna deserve praise for taking on HHS and holding it accountable. It should come as no surprise that HHS has been unresponsive to Congress’ questions. Confronting the truth here would mean recognizing the CDC and NIH have favored industry partnerships over their charter to protect the American public.