One would think the National Cancer Institute's Director of the Office of Ethics should be reviewing employee travel and, if necessary, raise red flags when so-called sponsored travel - trips taken by employees that are paid for by companies and other entities - appear unusual. Instead, the director was criticized and transferred for expressing concerns, according to US Senator Chuck Grassley.
In an Oct. 22 letter to the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins and NCI director Harold Varmus, Grassley writes that the NCI's Acting Executive Officer disciplined the former Ethics Office director for pointing out that "NCI’s sponsored travel policy might be an illegal augmentation of NCI’s government travel appropriation, that the location of some of the conferences might be inappropriate and that the frequency and cost of the trips might be questionable."
Such as? Well, Grassley writes that, in 2008 and 2009, numerous NCI employees took between 10 and 20 sponsored travel trips, many of which cost more than $10,000, with some costing more than $17,000. Moreover, the destinations for conference and meetings were almost always overseas: Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, China and Brazil, among other places. The only places they would visit in the US were California and West Palm Beach, Florida. Interestingly, he notes the sponsored travel does not include NCI’s appropriation for government paid travel. And 16 NCI employees each took 10 or more trips.
"This is deeply troubling," Grassley writes about what he calls retaliation. "In short, it sounds as though the director of the NCI Office of Ethics may have been disciplined for doing her job."
And so Grassley, who is the ranking Republican on the US Senate Finance Committee, wants the NCI to provide all sorts of details about employee travel between 2008 and 2010, the names of those paying for the travel and the amount spent by NCI for paid government travel during that period. Finally, Grassley asks the NCI to conduct an internal review for following proper procedures governing sponsored travel. We have contacted NCI for comment and will update you accordingly.