Bird-flu vaccine scheme fractures health department

TACOMA — The vision was noble. For a garage-sale price, Pierce County would gain a stockpile of imported bird flu medication enough to combat a feared pandemic.

There was just one problem: It was completely illegal.

That didn’t stop Federico Cruz-Uribe, director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and 14-year veteran of public health battles. In 2005, he launched an ill-fated scheme to buy 15,000 doses of generic medication from drug companies in India.

He knew the purchase would violate federal law. He said it was the only way he couldn’t get the drugs from legal sources.

“In health, that’s what we do,” he recently told The News Tribune. “We challenge the status quo.”

His passion, coupled with a national case of bird flu anxiety, gave him early support and momentum. Then the legal risks became clear. Cruz-Uribe’s staff and his bosses at the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health urged him to abandon the project.

He didn’t. The plan progressed, without the board’s knowledge. It failed. The drugs were never purchased. Top-level managers smothered the idea by defying or deceiving Cruz-Uribe, ultimately stopping the buy.

Public money paid to a foreign middleman was spent for nothing. Careers collapsed for a fruitless dream.

It was Cruz-Uribe’s last crusade.

Whether laws were broken is unclear, but money spent on the plan sparked a complaint to the state auditor’s office, which has relayed the information to the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Health Department records show Cruz-Uribe personally approved but kept secret from the board $60,000 in contracts to advance the importation scheme. The contracts were separated into smaller amounts — deliberately set below the threshold that would trigger Health Board scrutiny.

Not all the money was spent. But before agency managers took action to close the contracts, the Health Department poured almost $23,000 into the venture, and came away with nothing.

In a meeting with subordinates, Cruz-Uribe suggested bringing the drugs across the U.S. border in packages labeled as veterinary supplies. He floated the idea of using Canadian sources as intermediaries.

Cruz-Uribe pursued the illegal drug purchase despite stern warnings from Susan Ferguson, the agency’s attorney at the time, who told Cruz-Uribe and Health Board members that she refused to help them commit a crime.

Up to that point, Health Board members had considered approving the unlawful purchase, and even privately discussed a public vote that would have spent the money while masking the illegal transaction. After Ferguson spoke out, board members retreated from the notion. Individual members say they told Cruz-Uribe to let the project die. He secretly persisted.

The dubious venture fractured the Health Department. Three managers, including Ferguson, resigned in quick succession earlier this year. A fourth announced his pending retirement.

The unexpected departures surprised the Health Board, prompted members to order an internal investigation and hastened Cruz-Uribe’s retirement from a position he’d held since December 1992.

Those incidents, which played out over the past two years, were never revealed to the public. They are chronicled in almost 700 pages of public records obtained by The News Tribune.

In a Sept. 6 interview, Cruz-Uribe, 58, said he acted with the approval and knowledge of his bosses on the Health Board.

In a second interview Sept. 27, he added that he was merely setting up a framework that would make a purchase possible. Board members told him not to buy anything, he said — but they never gave a collective order to halt the project.

“It just quietly died,” he said. “I wasn’t told to stop.”

Tacoma City Councilman Rick Talbert, chairman of the board, sees it differently.

“It’s obvious that there continued to be work on this issue that was being done without the knowledge of the board,” he said in a recent interview.

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