A report from the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has determined that a division within the department misappropriated millions in funds meant to respond to public health emergencies like COVID-19. Instead, it spent that money on unrelated expenses like furniture purchases and administrative expenditures.
The investigation was initiated in 2018 by an anonymous whistleblower who reported that the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) had been siphoning funds intended for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), an agency it administers, since at least 2010.
BARDA, which establishes medical countermeasures against public health emergencies like bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases, was referred to as "the bank of BARDA" within ASPR, according to documents first publicized by The Washington Post on Wednesday.
"ASPR used BARDA's…funds intended for the development of public health countermeasures, like vaccines…to pay for the removal of ASPR office furniture, ASPR administrative expenses and news subscriptions, legal services used by ASPR, ASPR's internal resource management system, and the salaries of personnel who did not work for BARDA," wrote U.S. Special Counsel Henry Kerner in a letter to President Joe Biden.
Kerner, who oversees this investigation, alleges that from 2007 to 2016 ASPR misreported $517.8 million in administrative spending to Congress and that, as recently as 2019, $25 to $26 million was taken from BARDA and improperly given to ASPR.
"I am deeply concerned about ASPR's apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funding meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic," Kerner said. "Equally concerning is how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade."
Although the report does not contain an estimate for the total amount of misappropriated funds, a spokesperson for the Special Counsel's Office said the office is confident that ASPR wrongfully used millions of dollars meant for BARDA. An accounting firm has been hired to audit the agency.