Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is investigating allegations that the FDA monitored email of employees who were whistle-blowers. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
The Office of Special Counsel is investigating whether the Food and Drug Administration broke personnel rules by monitoring the personal emails of past and current employees who were whistle-blowers.
FDA has acknowledged it monitored emails between employees and congressional investigators and OSC "after the employees reported coercion to approve unsafe or harmful medical devices," OSC said in a statement Wednesday.
OSC said it received "new and troubling" allegations from current and former FDA employees that their managers retaliated against them and attempted to launch a criminal investigation.
OSC first opened an investigation into FDA's monitoring of employee emails several months ago, but two weeks ago it broadened that probe to examine whether the monitoring constituted improper retaliation against whistle-blowers, OSC spokeswoman Ann O'Hanlon said in an interview. "If we find that an agency committed a prohibited personnel practice we work to resolve that."
FDA fired two employees and did not renew contracts for two others. Two other employees still work at FDA.
In a lawsuit filed Jan. 25 in U.S. District Court of Washington, the six FDA employees claimed that top FDA managers monitored and seized emails from their personal Gmail and Yahoo accounts for at least two years because they were whistle-blowers.
The House Oversight Committee and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, are also investigating allegations made by the whistle-blowers.
"I'm committed to getting to the bottom of it," Grassley told Health and Human Services Department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Grassley asked Sebelius if she thinks searching through employees' personal emails is OK "just because they contact the Special Counsel or Congress."
Sebelius said that she is concerned about potential retaliation against any whistle-blower, and that FDA didn't monitor personal emails that weren't about the FDA.
"Federal employees are put on notice that their emails can be monitored," and "FDA needs to have protections around proprietary information," she said.
O'Hanlon said the FDA investigation will likely continue for months.