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FDA’s next top cop will be Trump administration’s pick

Another top job has opened up at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to be filled by President-elect Donald J. Trump.

FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations — the agency’s 25-year-old police force — will be without a director after Jan. 20 because of the resignation of its chief following some more high-level shenanigans.

George Karavetsos

George Karavetsos

The OCI director since January 2015, former federal prosecutor George Karavetsos has decided to leave government on Jan. 20 to join a private law firm instead of remaining to defend his two-year stint at the post. His departure is drawing comparisons to the 2010 exit of OCI’s first director, former Secret Service agent Terry Vermillion, who was FDA’s top cop for the agency’s strong arm for its first 18 years.

For almost two decades, Vermillion apparently either kept the FDA commissioner in the dark, or looking the other way, while OCI took on characteristics of a personal fiefdom. Most unusual was the fact that Vermillion ran the national investigative agency from his private residence in Hampton, VA. He also preferred to hire only retired Secret Service agents like himself, and reportedly put sexual harassment complaints in the round file.

He quit when powerful Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, and the Government Accounting Office of Congress got wind of what was going on with the FDA’s criminal investigations unit. Vermillion got out without any disciplinary action and with his federal pension intact.

A whistleblower wrote Sen. Grassley with these charges about Vermillion’s tenure as OCI director:

  • He ran the agency from his residence in Hampton, VA., about 200 miles or four hours away from FDA’s headquarters in Silver Spring, MD.
  • Office staff were required to do personal work for him.
  • Without approval of FDA senior management, he used government funds to train and promote an employee referred to as his “Office Mistress.”
  •  OCI’s Office of Internal Affairs were required to whitewash reports that were critical of retired Secret Service agents, who Vermillion preferred to hire.
  • OCI training meetings were always in Dallas to facilitate Vermillion visiting his family, including his grand children, who lived in the area.

ucm284593By the time he stepped down from commanding a police force of 180 with responsibility for a $41.3  million budget, Vermillion was one of FDA’s highest paid employees at more $200,000 a year. Total OCI employment was 223.

Former FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg was content to leave the top job at OIC vacant for several years, with senior OCI agent Thomas P. Doyle serving as acting director.

After OCI had to concede jurisdiction to the FBI on several of complex criminal investigations involving fatal food safety cases, the appointment of a former federal prosecutor was seen as a morale booster by the agency.

But then in the fall of 2016, there was a series of news stories by Reuters reporter Sarah N. Lynch involving OCI drug investigations and the OCI director’s conduct. The news fairly quickly drew the attention of Congress.

The powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee wanted to know why the Food and Drug Administration’s OCI director was running the investigative unit from FDA offices near his home in South Florida when he’d been paid $25,000 to relocate to FDA headquarters in Maryland.

Also getting attention are incidents where the OCI director diverted agents to provide “lights and sirens” motorcade service for mid-level executives visiting South Florida and elsewhere. In one instance, 11 staffers were reportedly pulled from their regular duties for a motorcade.

Vermillion also filled some vacancies by assigning agents on a temporary basis, meaning they lived in hotels and on government expense accounts. Some critics say that money could have been better spent.

But the major criticism voiced before Karavetsos quit was his assignment of agents to work on cases involving foreign-imported, mislabeled drugs. More than half of the cases are failing to reach prosecution. The efforts are earning OCI a reputation as “the Botox police.” U.S. attorneys around the country often find such cases lack merit.

FDA existed without its own police force until 1992. It’s purpose is to conduct investigations into possible violations of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

As Karavetsos departs, he leaves behind an agency with 280 employees and an annual budget of $77.3 million. It is attached to FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs.

Agents with the OIC are involved in food safety investigations. However, the FBI has been brought in for complicated cases where prosecutions involve numerous other federal criminal laws like, including those covering fraud and conspiracy.

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