Ousted Personnel Lament ‘Politicizing’ of FDA Public Affairs Office

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Michael Causey
In FDA Regulated Industries

Michael Causey, Editor & Publisher, eDataIntegrityReport.com

The mini-purge of personnel in the FDA’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) and related sections has moved beyond charges of ageism and clumsy, inexperienced new management: Recently ousted staffers tell us they also believe they were forced out because they were committed to science and not politics.

The ousted staffers tell us they generally agree that the media reports of a heavy-handed removal of older 50+, experienced personnel for trumped up reasons are “dead on” and part of a larger issue within the HHS family that “values politics (campaign-style) over science,” as one ousted staffer told us recently.

“They run the OPA like they are still on the campaign trail,” said a recent victim of 31 year-old OPA Associate Commissioner of External Affairs’ Beth Martino’s axe. Many of the higher-ranking new HHS and FDA personnel come from the ranks of the Obama presidential campaign, she notes.

Martino’s media talking points are “so naïve they are laughable,” said the former OPA staffer. “A true reporter would laugh at them” because they blandly say the FDA is based on science but often don’t provide specifics about the issue at hand, the former staffer says.

“Everything was treated like a new product roll-out on the campaign trail,” she added.

We’re told by an insider that Martino once “chastised” OPA staffer Ira Allen, 62, for providing a reporter with the real science on an issue rather than staying with the political message. Allen was one of the experienced staffers Martino later told to resign or face charges of incompetence.

“At her tender young age” Martino was too inexperienced to handle the 60-person team she “seized” control of at her first group-wide meeting after taking the helm in March, an FDA insider said.

“She made it very clear that if you didn’t do it her way you were wrong and stupid,” the former staffer continued. Martino regularly criticized, often in minute ways at the last minute, media strategies developed by long-time FDA media staff with extensive backgrounds working in and with the media.

“What’s Beth’s credential?” an ousted staffer asked. “She knew the right people.”

Martino, a former aide to HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, brings a total of seven years work experience to her leadership role. She received a B.S. degree in Journalism – Integrated Marketing Communications in 2005 from the University of Kansas.

She decidely represents the younger tech-savvy set, with a Twitter account that features her musings on a disappointing Starbucks latte (“Looking fwd 2 @Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte all morn. Got 2 desk, took a sip & yuck: something not right. Unfortunate turn of events.”) and the 20th anniversary of the movie The Goonies “(I love this movie just as much today as I did 20 years ago! RT @prsarahevans: Goonies is 20 years old? Wow.”). Martino was reportedly also behind the push for the FDA to have a Facebook page.

Creating an FDA Facebook page is a harmless and may even be a positive way to connect with Americans, and there’s nothing wrong with a slightly dorky personal Twitter account, either. But Martino seems to value youth and tech-savvy at the expense of those with FDA and industry knowledge and experience.

The FDA’s Facebook page is headed up by one of the relative youngsters, Carl Chitwood, Director of Web Communications. He discounted at least part of a recent media report detailing the purge, “Everything [that article] said about my actions was completely and totally inaccurate.” In the article Chitwood is accused of forcing out his predecessor, Donna Avallone, 62 and a career FDA employee. Avallone has more than 15 years Internet and Intranet experience, and won the 2003 Federal Emergency Management Association’s Director’s Award for a redesign of the FEMA web site.

But Chitwood’s right, sort of, say our sources inside the FDA. “He didn’t fire her, he just changed her job trying to make her miserable.” The former FDAer accused Chitwood of giving Avallone “busywork tasks that were impossible to fulfill, like some silly metric measure project that really couldn’t be done. Then he could use that ‘failure’ in her performance evaluations to say she wasn’t able to do her job. It’s very sad and unfair.” Avallone remains at the FDA.

Chitwood referred requests for comment to the OPA, which hadn’t yet responded when this blog was posted.

Now that Martino has forced out her relatively easy targets, our former FDAers say, she may have her sights on others who, because they’ve been with the government or FDA for more than 365 days, are more difficult to terminate.

An allegedly favorite Martino tactic is to play off two staffers she doesn’t like against each other. For example, our inside FDA source said she recently pitted press officers Mike Herndon and Karen Riley against each other by saying one would get a promotion. When Herndon won the job, the FDAer says, Martino hoped Riley would be angry and quit. So far, Riley hasn’t left the agency.

“It’s a tough job market out there, and it’s not easy for staffers, especially older ones, to find work right now,” the former FDAer notes.

Martino’s credentials to run this important office include being director of communications and press secretary for Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson and former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. She was also deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Labor and also served as director of communications at the labor department. Before that, she was an account coordinator at MB Piland Advertising in Topeka, Kan., and a district executive for the Boy Scouts’ Jayhawk Area Council in Topeka.

One former staffer talked about Martino’s tech “addiction.” The former staffer says that Martino spent a couple days at a new media conference about blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc., in September “right when all the office issues were boiling over.”

The staffer wryly sums up Martino’s focus; “Somehow, I just don’t see Twitter at the forefront of communicating sound science from the FDA anytime soon.”

And maybe, just maybe Martino is getting an inkling that something’s wrong. As she tweeted on October 18, “Thinking I need to do a little image work. I’ve been hearing from too many co-workers lately about how serious I am. I’m fun, right?”

Editor’s Note: We asked the FDA’s media relation’s office for comment but have not heard back yet. We’ll be glad to include their comments if and when we get any.

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