Refusal to Alter Reports on poisonings from Malathion spraying leads to Dr. Shafey's Dismissal in Florida  

Apr 5, 2000 - 02:10 AM

Tampa Tribune

Shafey firing raises issue of autonomy


Four days before health officials launched an investigation into Omar Shafey's travel records, the state epidemiologist fired off a prophetic e-mail to his new boss entitled ``ethics.''  

In it, Shafey, 38, alluded to continuing discord over his refusal in January 1999 to alter the conclusions of a controversial Medfly report.  

``The department can retaliate against me by not cooperating with other surveillance goals ... and/or fire me for some other perceived violation of procedures,'' Shafey wrote in the Dec. 6 memo.  

However, added Shafey, he was a scientist in a career service position who could not be fired without cause.  

Less than three months later, health officials accused the epidemiologist of falsifying his travel records and fired him.  

The circumstances surrounding Shafey's dismissal raise questions about the autonomy of government scientists acting in the public's interest and whether their work can be effectively shielded from political pressures.  

In a complaint filed last week with the U.S. Department of Labor, Shafey's lawyers contend state health officials retaliated against him for airing his concerns about the health risks of crop dusting urban populations with malathion bait to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly.  

The crop-killing pest poses a serious threat to the state's agriculture industry. Widespread aerial spraying has long been viewed as the cheapest, most effective remedy, even in the face of growing opposition to the practice.  

The administrative action, filed under federal whistleblower statutes, alleges Shafey's new bureau chief, David Johnson, suggested in November ``that he should conform his professional recommendations'' to the official policy of the health department ``or consider leaving.''  

Health officials won't comment on the dismissal, citing pending litigation.  

But department records obtained by The Tampa Tribune document Shafey's meteoric fall from grace, which culminated March 2 with the nationally respected scientist being escorted from the agency's headquarters by a police officer.  

Some of the more than 1,000 pages of investigative reports, e- mails and memos shed light on growing tensions between Shafey - a former Peace Corps volunteer and Greenpeace activist - and his superiors.  

Much of the conflict revolved around the department's attempts to manage the information Shafey acquired and disseminated as he attempted to document incidents of pesticide poisoning around the state.  

But health officials made no mention of escalating professional disagreements in a March 1 letter charging Shafey with falsifying travel records and engaging in conduct unbecoming a public employee.  

The latter charge stemmed from a February e-mail Shafey sent to Geoffrey Calvert, a senior medical officer at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In it, Shafey noted that potassium chloride used in the state's first execution by lethal injection had not been approved for that use by the Food and Drug Administration.  

Health officials called the correspondence ``inappropriate'' and ``outside the scope of your job duties and outside the jurisdiction of the Department of Health.''  

Calvert, in his e-mail reply to Shafey, called it ``another example of your stellar sleuthing and your tenacious efforts to identify the truth.''  

Ironically, it is accusations of deception that form the foundation of the charges against Shafey.  

ON DEC. 10, SHARON HEBER, head of the agency's division of environmental health, asked the Inspector General's office to look into a trip Shafey took to Immokalee in early November. Shafey was to investigate a methyl bromide spill that injured dozens of farmworkers as well as rescue workers who responded to the scene.  

According to the Inspector General's report, Heber was ``concerned about the appropriateness of his travel'' because Shafey stayed in Miami rather than in two closer alternatives - Fort Myers or Naples.  

Heber, one of two health officials who altered the draft of Shafey's Medfly report to discount a link between aerial Medfly spraying and documented illnesses, cited state rules that call for employees ``to select the most economical method of travel.''  

Investigators concluded that although Miami was a longer commute, Shafey ended up saving the state a total of $47.11 by staying with a friend instead of paying for a motel room.  

Nonetheless, the three-month investigation continued.  

Shafey's records, including parking stubs, toll receipts, phone calls and e-mail, were meticulously examined to reconstruct his movements during the four-day trip.  

Investigators concluded the epidemiologist had not traveled to Immokalee on one of those days, although an attorney Shafey met with confirmed during two separate interviews that he had.  

The attorney did admit, after some prodding, ``that she could have been wrong about the day, but she still thinks the meeting was Friday,'' according to the investigator's interview summary.  

Investigators then moved on to inspect Shafey's next trip, a six-day conference in Chicago.  

An examination of those records led to the conclusion that Shafey had worked three-fourths of one day and received reimbursement for a full day's expenses ``resulting in an overpayment of $12.50.''  

According to the report, investigators never asked Shafey about the Chicago trip or the $12.50 discrepancy that resulted in one of the most serious charges, against him.  

THE NEWS of Shafey's firing rocked the participants of the Pesticide Poisoning Surveillance Program, a CDC-funded project that Shafey had coordinated since its 1998 inception.  

By most accounts, he is a careful scientist of unquestioned integrity.  

``I have found him to be one of the most professional, well organized and socially responsible individuals I have ever met,'' said Dennis Penzell, medical director of the Suncoast Community Health Centers in Ruskin.  

Some members of Shafey's pesticide working group, consisting of physicians and representatives of industries where pesticides may pose an occupational hazard, said they believe he may have been too conscientious for his own good.  

That sentiment is echoed by Marc Lappe, a former California health department toxicologist who warned in 1980 that aerial Medfly spraying posed a public health risk.  

Lappe's draft report, like Shafey's, was altered by his superiors. ``I think there's a pattern of behavior in which large bureaucracies attempt to protect themselves from having to take unpopular actions and from having to be responsible to the people they serve,'' said Lappe, who testified before the California State Assembly about his experience.  

Lappe resigned from the California health department in the wake of the Medfly controversy there, but not before officials stripped him of all involvement in policy decisions or discussions.  

THE BEGINNING OF the end for Shafey appears to be November, when Johnson took over as bureau chief.  

That was the same month Shafey took the investigated trips and the same month the CDC published an article supporting the epidemiologist's original conclusions that aerial spraying malathion bait to eradicate the crop-killing Medfly was linked to reported illnesses.  

In his interview with the travel investigators, Johnson called Shafey ``a hard worker'' and ``a smart man with a lot of talent.''  

But, he added, ``He has some difficulty in following the rules and tends to go around them.''  

Shafey's annual job evaluations mentioned no problems with the epidemiologist's ability to work within the system, commending him for his progress in developing the pesticide surveillance program.  

Nonetheless, Shafey found his professional responsibilities diminishing.  

In late February, Johnson informed Shafey that he could no longer ``perform the classification of acute illness'' in cases of pesticide poisoning.  

It was Shafey's classification of spray-zone-related illnesses that prompted the controversial Medfly report.  

Shafey's removal from classification duties brought a swift response from CDC, the state's partner in the surveillance program.  

``Who is responsible for this decision?'' wrote the CDC's Calvert to Johnson in an e-mail the following day.  

Calvert said the classification system is fundamental to the integrity of the program and stressed the importance of it being ``conducted in an objective and scientific manner.''  

``Please explain how you will ensure that the classifications are conducted in a high quality and timely fashion.''  

Calvert has not, to date, received an answer from the department.  

Less than two weeks later, Heber presented Shafey with a letter informing him of the department's allegations and its intent to terminate him.  

Heber reported that Shafey gave her ``a very aggressive stare'' and closed the door to her office, shutting out Johnson on the other side.  

The next day, Shafey was placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation of the incident.  

A Tallahassee police officer was summoned to escort Shafey from the building. According to the police report, the officer found him ``to be calm but upset.''  

An additional charge of ``abusive language'' was added to the roster when the epidemiologist called Johnson, among other things, ``a worm'' and ``excrement.''  

A hearing in which Shafey was to be given an opportunity to respond to the charges was canceled and he was terminated March 3.  

Jan Hollingsworth covers the environment and can be reached at (813) 259-7607 or See SHAFEY, Page 6 From Page 1

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