June 17, 2020

Warren, Blumenthal, Jayapal Probe Allegations of COVID-19 Conflicts of Interest Affecting Vice President Mike Pence's Chief of Staff Marc Short and Head of Operation Warp Speed Dr. Moncef Slaoui

Marc Short, Chief of Staff to Vice President Pence, owns individual stocks in companies awarded funding for vaccine development; Pence is head of White House Coronavirus Task Force; Dr. Slaoui, Head of Trump Administration vaccine efforts, is a former Pharmaceutical executive; Senators call for him to be subject to federal ethics laws and rules; "[T]he American public has a right to know that decisions are driven by science and the need to mitigate the pandemic, rather than by personal profit"

Text of letter to HHS Secretary Azar (PDF)

Text of letter to White House ethics official (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) sent letters to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and the White House designated ethics official raising concerns about conflicts of interest with regard to Dr. Moncef Slaoui's appointment to head Operation Warp Speed, the administration's coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine response, and Marc Short, the Vice President's Chief of Staff. The lawmakers are urging HHS to require Dr. Slaoui to follow all federal ethics laws and rules, which would require him to fully disclose his financial interests, divest from his financial conflicts, and recuse from matters in which he would have a personal conflict of interest. The lawmakers also asked the White House ethics official for more information about Marc Short's compliance with federal criminal conflicts of interest law. 

According to reports, the administration used an unusual arrangement for Dr. Slaoui-hiring him as a contractor for $1, rather than as a federal employee-so that he could take the job without selling, or even disclosing the value of, his financial holdings and other possible conflicts of interest, including equity holdings and board positions. This arrangement is a blatant attempt to skirt federal ethics law, shielding Dr. Slaoui from public financial disclosures that are required under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 and that are meant to assure the American public that federal officials are not acting in their own financial interests. The senators instead asked that HHS bring him on as "Special Government Employee," which would trigger conflict of interest requirements. 

"If Dr. Slaoui were properly brought on as a federal official, it would be illegal for him to maintain these conflicts while leading Operation Warp Speed. And it is outrageous that the administration made a special arrangement, circumventing the law, that allows Dr. Slaoui to avoid disclosing his conflicts of interest," the lawmakers wrote.

According to his public financial disclosures, Marc Short "owns between $506,043 and $1.64 million worth of individual stocks in companies doing work related to the Trump administration's pandemic response." These stocks include companies that manufacture personal protective equipment, including much-needed N95 respirators; companies that make COVID-19 tests; pharmacies; health insurance companies; and pharmaceutical manufacturers involved in the development of COVID-19 medical countermeasures, including vaccines. On June 3, 2020, the Trump administration "selected five companies as the most likely candidates to produce a vaccine" for COVID-19. Mr. Short and his wife hold substantial amounts of stock in three of these five finalists, owning between $101,000 and $340,000 in Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Merck collectively. Federal criminal conflicts law prohibits Mr. Short or any officer or employee of the executive branch from participating "personally and substantially" in any "particular matter" in which he has a financial interest. Violation of this law could result in a fine or imprisonment.

"The American public must have full faith that officials such as Mr. Short have no conflicting investments that would prevent them from acting in the country's best interest." the lawmakers wrote.

Senators Warren, Blumenthal, and Congresswoman Jayapal introduced the Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics Act, bicameral legislation that would address and eliminate conflicts of interest related to the federal pandemic response, in part by requiring advisors involved in pandemic response such as Dr. Slaoui and Marc Short to file public reports detailing their financial interests.  

"As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on Americans' health and economic well-being, it is critical that the effort to develop countermeasures be guided by science and data-not by an intent to profit. The American public must have full faith that officials responsible for responding to the pandemic disclose, and divest from, conflicted investments prior to joining administration efforts in which their actions could have a significant influence on financial markets and the financial performance of individual companies." the lawmakers wrote