Energy magnate David Koch left his spot on a National Cancer Institute (NCI) advisory board last month after the expiration of his term, but green advocates are taking aim at the conservative mega-donor nonetheless by calling for a review of federal ethics policies that allowed him to sit on the panel despite a potential conflict of interest.
Koch Industries Inc., the privately held company run by Koch and his brother Charles, burst onto the political scene this year thanks to multimillion-dollar contributions the duo steered to right-leaning groups that help fuel the tea party movement. But David Koch's membership on the National Cancer Advisory Board, which advises NCI, became a flashpoint of its own after The New Yorker magazine last month reported that a Koch-owned company lobbied against designating formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen while he sat on the panel.
In a request sent Monday to the Office of Government Ethics, which polices executive-branch conflicts of interest, Greenpeace and Physicians for Social Responsibility asked for a full accounting of any financial disclosures Koch was required to make ahead of his nomination to the advisory board by then-President George W. Bush.
"It is astounding that [advisory board] rules permit the selection of any board members with known bias and direct conflicts of interests to be on the [advisory] board where they can directly influence matters as important as public health policy," representatives from the two groups wrote.
An NCI study published last year helped inform a recommendation by an expert panel of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) -- like NCI, operating under the larger National Institutes of Health aegis -- that formaldehyde be listed as a "known human carcinogen." Georgia-Pacific, a wood products maker that Koch Industries purchased in 2005, later submitted public comments that "strongly disagree[d]" with the notion of a causal link between formaldehyde exposure and cancer.
"We want to know how much was known before the appointment was made and how the advisory board reconciles that it's got a member who has a clear financial interest in promoting formaldehyde," Greenpeace campaigner Gabe Wisniewski, whose group submitted a separate Freedom of Information Act request to NCI yesterday, said in an interview.
"If there is no plan for accounting for that conflict of interest, we expect not only Greenpeace but many groups within the health and environmental community would be reasonable in asking for Koch to be dismissed from the board."
In fact, Koch has departed the board already. His name is no longer listed on its online roster, and an NCI spokeswoman confirmed that the panel's September meeting was the last for the conservative donor. Koch's appointment to the board was originally set to expire in March, but existing rules allowed for an extension of his membership, the spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, political jockeying continues unabated over formaldehyde and the Koch brothers' role in resisting stricter regulation of their chemical and oil interests. In an online response to the New Yorker article, the company slammed its critics and touted the nine-figure donations that David Koch, a prostate cancer survivor, has sent to research centers working on the disease.
EPA's draft assessment of formaldehyde, released in June, echoes the NTP expert panel's conclusion that exposure to the chemical increases cancer risk in humans. But that finding is unlikely to spur new limits on the substance in the short term, given that industry successfully pushed for a delay in final action until after the National Academy of Sciences reviews the EPA decision (Greenwire, April 16).
Click here to read the two groups' request for an OGE review.
Click here to read the Freedom of Information Act request filed by Greenpeace.