LAT exposes wasteful spending on the biowarfare beat

Local media outlets around the country can do that, too

An expose of dubious Pentagon spending hit the front page of the Los Angeles Times front page not long ago, the latest in a stretch of hard-hitting pieces on defense and biotech by reporter David Willman.

Willman’s piece is a model of aggressive reporting on government spending for other journalists at major publications. But it also highlights opportunities for local reporters to take a more critical look at federal funds that flow into their communities.

The Nov. 23 article, headlined, “Pentagon makes costly foray into biodefense drug business,” began:

Despite intense pressure to hold down federal spending, the Defense Department is launching a high-priced effort to create its own production pipeline for vaccines and biodefense drugs—an initiative that defies the advice of government-hired experts and duplicates what another agency is doing.

The Pentagon is financing construction of a drug-making factory that will produce medicines to protect soldiers against germ warfare—and paying for the effort by cutting planned spending on gas masks, early-warning sensors, and other equipment—even though the federal Department of Health and Human Services, working with university researchers and drug companies, is spending billions to produce the same types of drugs, Willman reported.

An analysis commissioned by the White House, obtained by Willman, “recommended against establishing a government-controlled facility, akin to what the Pentagon is doing.”

But the DoD official in charge of the project didn’t want to leave it to HHS, which awarded three contracts providing startup funding in 2012. He wanted his own, Willman reports—and earlier this year he got it, when the Pentagon awarded a separate contract that will support construction of a drug manufacturing facility in North Florida. Here’s the conclusion of Willman’s article:

The overlapping efforts of the Defense and Health departments were illuminated at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing Oct. 11.

[Former Pentagon official Brett] Giroir testified that his Health and Human Services-funded facility would be “fully capable of performing the advanced development and manufacturing” for medicines sought by both Health officials and the military.

Asked about the separate initiatives, Dr. Philip K. Russell, a retired major general who once headed the Army’s Medical Research and Development Command, cited “an enormous amount of wasted effort.”

“In our government, everybody is in favor of coordination — but nobody wants to be coordinated,” he said.

This was the latest instance of Willman being ahead of other reporters at the nation’s top newspapers in uncovering profiteering and waste in biowarfare. Among his important beats was a May 19 expose of lawyer Richard J. Danzig, the former Navy secretary and Obama advisor who urged major government spending on anti-anthrax drugs while maintaining undisclosed financial ties to a manufacturer of those drugs.

And beginning a month later Willman delivered a string of reports about BioWatch, the costly federal program to detect airborne attacks using weaponized pathogens whose emphasis on large-scale attacks is now believed to be misplaced.

Reporters at other major outlets mostly (though not entirely) failed to follow-up on Willman’s BioWatch reporting. The lack of coverage was surprising, since the issues involve not just taxpayer money and national security, but would also interest investors in companies that work for the government on BioWatch.

Willman’s latest story, on the Pentagon’s investment in drug manufacturing, offers an opportunity for a different sort of follow-up. The Defense contract went to a company called Nanotherapeutics, which is expanding its presence in a research park in Alachua, FL, not far from Gainesville. Here’s how the local paper, the Gainesville Sun, reported on the deal in October—the tone was a bit different than in the LAT report:

ALACHUA — The city of Alachua’s past, present and future were on display Wednesday morning as Nanotherapeutics broke ground on a 165,000-square-foot facility on the grounds of the former Copeland Sausage plant.

During a ceremony under a big tent with Gov. Rick Scott and about 250 people in attendance, Mayor Gib Coerper recalled that the plant’s closing devastated the town in 1976. That was before the University of Florida’s nearby Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator started nurturing companies built from medical research that fill the surrounding Progress Corporate Park….

[Gov. Rick] Scott presented a Governor’s Business Ambassador Award to [company CEO Jim] Talton, placing the medallion hanging from red, white and blue ribbon over Talton’s head.

“This is a great news day. More jobs,” Scott said. “As you all know, I ran three years ago on a platform to get our state back to work, so every day we’re announcing more jobs is a great day in this great state. It changes somebody’s life, and it creates an opportunity for a family that they didn’t have before.”

Alachua’s emerging high-tech economy, detailed at greater length by the Sun in November, does seem to be a local success story. And this sort of celebratory coverage of local business investment is par for the course in local news—if there is journalistic scrutiny it tends to focus on local tax breaks, which to its credit the Sun noted in its coverage.

But one of the reasons wasteful federal government spending persists at the Pentagon and elsewhere is that there are people and companies who benefit from the waste. And when local coverage plays up the benefits of a government contract without pausing to consider whether the project was prudent, it reinforces that dynamic a little bit more.

So, a tip for local reporters who want to watchdog taxpayer funds: The next time you get a press release about an area company scoring a big government project, do a clip search. And if Willman’s byline comes up, take note.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ. Tags: , , ,