Open The Government and Government Accountability Project Request Investigation into Illegal HHS Gag Orders

Washington – Earlier today, Open The Government and Government Accountability Project sent a letter to the Office of Special Counsel requesting an investigation into illegal gag orders issued by the political leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) last summer.

Our organizations wrote: “It has come to our attention that [HHS] leadership on multiple occasions violated the anti-gag laws enforced by your Office. Separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by BuzzFeed News and our organizations recently returned records evidencing these violations in primary documents, including email correspondence and agency communication policies.” The letter can be found here.

Government records obtained through FOIA show that former HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, Michael Caputo, and his senior advisor, Dr. Paul Alexander, restricted HHS workers’ First Amendment speech rights without reminding them of their whistleblowing rights as required by law.

In one email, Mr. Caputo wrote: “According to longstanding policy, no media interviews are permitted without HHS ASPA clearance. There are no exceptions.” In another, Dr. Alexander demanded an “immediate stop” to the production of Center for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports — scientific reports to health professionals — unless Dr. Alexander cleared the reports in advance.

Whistleblower and appropriations laws disallow government managers from restricting their workers’ speech without reminding them of their whistleblowing protections. The Office of Special Counsel has the ability to investigate these violations of whistleblower law.

Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open The Government, said:

“It is unconscionable that the public’s right to information is hampered at a time when the need for accurate and timely scientific data could not be more urgent. It is equally appalling that the full extent of the extent to which political appointees in the prior administration silenced scientists was only revealed as a result of successful litigation. These revelations underscore the need for more transparency at HHS and for the Biden Administration to repeal autocratic gag orders.”

Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst with the Government Accountability Project, said:

“Federal workers have the right to speak up and make whistleblowing disclosures. Political leaders at HHS violated this right by issuing illegal gag orders. These violations deserve an immediate, thorough investigation. There’s simply no time to waste when government scientists might think they’re silenced from speaking up to protect the public health.”

Ufuoma Otu
(202) 332-0251