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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Grassley suspects conflict of interest

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has accused Tufts Medical Center heart specialist Marvin Konstam of ignoring conflicts of interest while working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Grassley sent a letter to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni on Sept. 23 upon discovering that Konstam, a professor at Tufts' School of Medicine, has been working for the government health agency's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) while remaining a Tufts Medical Center employee and keeping a position with the private company Orqis Medical.

NIH policy prohibits the institute's full-time employees from receiving compensation for work with private industry companies. Konstam holds a position as a contractor, and Grassley claims that this status makes him a full-time worker. The senator wants to know whether NIH has been hiring researchers as contractors to skirt its own policy.

Konstam was hired as a senior advisor to the NHLBI director for one year, beginning Jan. 1, under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA). "As part of his duties, Konstam provided strategic guidance for the NHLBI's national research program on the causes, prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases and helped to develop a strategic plan for NHLBI research on cardiovascular diseases," NHLBI spokesperson Susan Dambrauskas told the Daily in an e-mail.

When he was hired by the NHLBI, Konstam was the chief of cardiology at Tufts Medical Center and a professor of medicine and radiology at the medical school.

According to a statement from Tufts Medical Center, Konstam "stepped out of his prior role of Chief of Cardiology" while working for the NIH. After his year at the NHLBI is done, he will return to Tufts Medical Center as the chief physician executive for their cardiovascular center.

Konstam did, however, remain a faculty member at the medical school, albeit with lessened duties. "The extent of Dr. Konstam's teaching activities for the Tufts University School of Medicine consisted of a single lecture to second-year medical students," the statement said. "At the Medical Center he saw patients one day a month."

Konstam has also continued to work as the medical director for Orqis, a private medical device company in California. In a Sept. 15 press release for Orqis, Konstam was identified as the company's medical director and a professor of medicine at Tufts. He published a study for Orqis in February. A spokesperson from Orqis did not return a request for comment.

"I would appreciate your insights into how Dr. Konstam, who appears to be a full-time federal employee, kept an office at Tufts and was publishing studies on behalf of Orqis while at the same time the Health and Human Services Website listed him as a Senior Advisor with an NHLBI phone number and email account," Grassley wrote in his letter to Zerhouni.

Konstam informed the NHLBI of "all his external activities" before taking his position with the institute, according to Dambrauskas.

Konstam also disclosed his relationship with Orqis to Tufts, and "was careful to ensure there would be no conflict of interest between his role there and his role at Tufts Medical Center," the Tufts Medical School statement said.

In recent months, Grassley has become a crusader of sorts against conflicts of interest in the NIH. He has sent several letters in recent months regarding moral ambiguity in the use of extramural research funds.

"As a senior member of the United States Senate and the Ranking Member of the Committee on Finance, I have a duty under the Constitution to conduct oversight into the actions of executive branch agencies," Grassley wrote in the Sept. 23 letter. "In this capacity, I must ensure that NIH properly fulfills its mission to advance the public's welfare and makes responsible use of the public funding provided for medical studies."

In his letter, Grassley discussed David Schwartz, who served as the director of the NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health while simultaneously working for Duke University. "Dr. Schwartz hired several scientists from Duke who were forced to return to Duke, and your office had to investigate several NIEHS grants awarded to do for possible conflict of interest violations," Grassley wrote.

Konstam would not have been able to show Tufts similar favoritism, according to Dambrauskas. "Under the terms of the IPA assignment, Dr. Konstam remains an employee of Tufts Medical Center, and he is not authorized to approve or make any grant or contract awards or conduct research in the NHLBI intramural program," she said.

In his letter, Grassley requested "an explanation of how much money NHLBI paid Dr. Konstam for salary and moving expenses, where those funds came from, and whether Dr. Konstam has received any compensation from other institutions and/or companies during the time he was employed by NHLBI," as well as copies of his financial disclosure filings and "any materials relating to any contract that may exist between Dr. Konstam and the NIH" by Oct. 7.

"We will work closely with Senator Grassley and his staff to address the concerns and questions outlined in the letter," Dambrauskas said.

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