Newly disclosed documents raise more questions than answers about federal funds diverted to set up the pandemic project, current financial supporters, and China’s involvement.
By Paul D. Thacker
New documents further detail the hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds diverted to set up the Global Virome Project, an organization now headed by Dennis Carroll, a former official with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) pandemic program. While at USAID, Carroll used his federal position to funnel several hundred thousand dollars in government funds to create the Global Virome Project. Carroll later left his USAID job to run this new organization.
In a statement last week to the DisInformation Chronicle, Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said, “The Inspector General’s office should investigate whether the law was broken and, upon finding probable cause, refer the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution.”
Shortly after the DisInformation Chronicle published an investigation of internal documents on Dennis Carroll, US Right to Know released further details of Carroll’s misuse of USAID resources and quoted a USAID spokesperson stating that Carroll never sought a waiver of conflicts of interest laws.
By email, A USAID spokesperson explained that the Global Virome Project established a nonprofit after Carroll left USAID. He added that Carroll did not meet the legal requirements of “senior personnel” which require a “cooling off period” before seeking post-government employment. “USAID does not have any record that Mr. Carroll sought advice regarding whether a recusal was necessary or appropriate for any post-government employment negotiations in which he might have been engaging,” wrote the USAID spokesperson.
However, USAID’s response seems at odds with an email sent by Dennis Carroll.
While Carroll and others were working to set up the Global Virome Project (GVP) in April 2019, Carroll emailed the group from his USAID email account about his “consultation with USAID’s Ethics office.” The email also references discussions around a “China update” and a draft document for a China and US partnership.
The date that the Global Virome Project formed remains unclear. In late 2018, USAID members of the PREDICT project proposed board members for the GVP as well as a scientific advisory board. The proposed names include many well-known virologists such as George Gao with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Marion Koopmans, who heads the department of viroscience at Erasmus MC.
“Opinionated, never negative about this, great scientist,” reads an internal analysis of Koopmans. “Maybe more critical but could be good with the critics to invite her.”
To accelerate the transition of the GVP to a legal entity, I have agreed with the Steering Committee’s Core Group to assume the responsibilities of the Executive Director for the incubation period. This will require my retiring from my current position at USAID later this summer — the timing will be coincident with the legal startup of the GVP.
A month prior to Carroll’s email discussing his upcoming role with the Global Virome Project, USAID’s Office of the General Counsel released guidance on key employment laws and regulations. “The restrictions discussed in this guidance carry criminal penalties for violation, and newspaper articles regularly describe former Government officials who have run afoul of the rules,” reads the guidance, which details federal rules for job hunting.
Specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 208 (a criminal statute) and the Standards of Conduct, 5 C.F.R. § 2635.601, prohibit a Federal employee from participating “personally and substantially” on official matters that will have a “direct and predictable” effect on the financial interests of an entity with whom the employee is negotiating or has any arrangement with concerning future employment.
The exact amount of funds that Carroll diverted from USAID’s pandemic program to set up the GVP remains unclear. In their release of documents, US Right to Know published a spreadsheet showing that $270,969 in USAID PREDICT funds were diverted to the GVP. However, other internal emails show USAID PREDICT contractors discussing GVP funds that were earmarked for Columbia University as well as $341,000 designated for a GVP benefit cost analysis study.
“I plan on obligating those funds to Metabiota as soon as the balance of our [year 5] obligation is received by USAID, but please let me know if this is unacceptable, and I’ll see what can possibly be done (creative accounting required).”
Members of the USAID PREDICT team later sent around an email for a scheduled January 2020 conference call to discuss the GVP benefit cost analysis. Other people listed for the conference call included Gavin Yamey and Monica Roberson of Duke University, as well as Dean Jamison of the University of Washington and Colin Boyle of the University of California at San Francisco.
To this day, the financial supporters of the Global Virome Project are uknown. In early 2019, Edward “Eddy” Rubin of Metabiota emailed fellow GVP board member Jonna Mazet of UC Davis, as well as Dennis Carroll at USAID, to complain that the GVP was not finding backers.
“USAID while supportive may not going forward be our champion,” Rubin with Metabiota wrote. “Maybe we need to keep on searching for a champion as the project clearly has not found one. Maybe China.”
Now chair of the Global Virome Project’s board of directors, Dennis Carroll did not return multiple requests for comment.