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Letter From The Editor: FDA’s OCI

When you spend most of your life doing daily news you get into a certain mindset that has to do with what’s important right now.  

We use to just have to think about tomorrow as the daily news cycle, but now as everybody knows there are several waves during the day fed by the 24/7 cable news and Internet filings.

As we’ve explained before, Food Safety News policy is to update its content each day by 5 a.m., Eastern.  But even we made an exception or two last week with the Senate passage of S. 510, the food safety bill.  

Watching the Senate this year make food safety law has been like watching one of those Boris and Natasha cartoons where they keep escaping death, but only by inches.  It’s been hard to turn away.

However, this week I’ve devoted many hours thinking about 2010 as a whole for the year-end stories we are planning.   Inevitably when doing this sort of research, one runs across something missed when it happened.

Last January, the General Accounting Office (GAO) of Congress issued a report about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI).

The report has one of those dry-mouth GAO titles: “Improved Monitoring and Development of Performance Measures Needed to Strengthen Oversight of Criminal and Misconduct Investigations.”

There are a couple of things worth mentioning about the report.  First, it’s a reliable source of some basic information about OCI.   The $41.3 million OCI has a half dozen field offices for its 180 criminal investigators.  Total OCI employment stands at 223.

Second, and most importantly, it was that report that led to a series of events culminating in Terry Vermillion, a former Secret Service agent who heads OCI, announcing his resignation on Nov. 23. 

The basic facts are that GAO said FDA was not exercising enough authority over OCI, and then a whistleblower went to Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley with charges that the problem was Vermillion himself, who was running OCI over the phone from his personal residences, sort of like Charlie’s Angels.

So, we can say it was a pretty dysfunctional OCI that in two years has not been able to bring any criminal prosecution in the Peanut Corporation of America case, where it is alleged, based on his own emails, that Steward Parnell knowingly shipped peanuts contaminated with Salmonella.

Vermillion left the Secret Service after 20 years and joined FDA in 1992, shortly after OCI’s creation a year earlier.   He was one of FDA’s highest paid employees, taking home more than $200,000.

With 38 years of federal service, Vermillion will have one those nice federal pensions to look forward to, but I am not sure the 700 injured, or the survivors of the nine killed by PCA, will ever see justice.  

Reading through the GAO report, it looks like OCI is filled with those who’ve done their better years with other federal law enforcement offices.  

“According to the OCI Director, OCI prefers to hire experienced criminal investigators from other federal law enforcement agencies because they bring to OCI prior federal law enforcement training, professional contacts, and expertise in several areas, including the use of investigative techniques.,” the GAO report says.

It’s a policy that served Director Vermillion well.  Very well.

© Food Safety News
  • ken

    I have not dealt with anyone from OCI directly. But, in all of my dealings with other branches of FDA, building a criminal case has always been their highest priority.
    Their findings never recommend solutions because FDA is afraid that if they do and the company adopts their recommendations, it will interfere with their ability to prosecute the company later.

  • “Reading through the GAO report, it looks like OCI is filled with those who’ve done their better years with other federal law enforcement offices.”
    Are you kidding? Do you know how difficult the criminal violtions contained within the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act are to investigate and prosecute? Have you read OCI’s press releases? Their seizures? With only 180 Special Agents compared to say, the FBI’s 14,000+, I’d say the American public is certainly getting their money’s worth out of these experienced agents. You want rookies doing this complicated job? I’d think not.

  • Robert Sheridan

    If your going to be a reporter please do your research. Vermillion like the Secret Service retirees he hired retired off of the Metropolitan Police and Fire Departments Retirement System which allowed them to retire after 20 years minimum service and then as most Secret Service retirees do come into other Federal Govt. jobs collecting their first pension and then start building towards a second government pension. OCI has run without proper oversight since its inception. Dingel helped create this monster and the DHHS OIG allow it to flourish without proper oversight for years. The OIG excuse was it busy ferreting out Fraud Waste and Abuse in the Medicare and Medicaid Program. Has any one check how much success they have had with it. Back to OCI and Vermillion with no oversight and lacking real criminal investigative experience this unit needs to be abolish and let the FDA inspectors do their job. One might also ask why these OCI investigators need government paid GYM memberships and government take home cars to enforce the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. Not to mention the other abuses uncovered.