Former FDA commissioner under investigation

The former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration is under federal investigation amid accusations of financial improprieties and making false statements to Congress, The New York Times reported Saturday.

The Times, citing attorney Barbara Van Gelder, said a grand jury has begun a criminal investigation of Lester Crawford. She declined further comment.

Van Gelder told a federal magistrate in a telephone hearing Thursday that she would instruct Crawford to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if ordered to answer questions about his actions as head of the FDA, a transcript of the hearing shows.

Crawford did not reply to messages left by the Times seeking comment. FDA spokeswoman Kathleen Quinn also declined comment.

Crawford resigned in September, two months after the Senate confirmed him, saying it was time for someone else to lead the agency. He had been acting commissioner for more than a year.

A month before he resigned, Crawford sold more than $50,000 in shares in a company regulated by the agency, according to financial disclosure forms obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act. He has since joined a Washington lobbying firm, Policy Directions Inc.

The criminal investigation was disclosed at a court hearing in a lawsuit over the FDA’s actions on emergency contraceptive pills, a subject of dispute during Crawford’s tenure.

After the pill’s maker, Barr Laboratories, applied three years ago to sell Plan B over the counter, the agency repeatedly delayed a decision on its application.

Many lawmakers, abortion rights advocates and former FDA officials said the delays had resulted from politics, but Crawford and other agency officials said their concerns were scientific and legal.

An advocacy group, the Center for Reproductive Rights, sued the agency in federal court in New York over the delays. A judge allowed the case to proceed, giving the center the right to interview top FDA officials, including Crawford.

Crawford was scheduled to be questioned under oath on Thursday, but on Wednesday Van Gelder, his personal lawyer, sought a delay, saying she would instruct him to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, the Times reported. Crawford previously declined to answer questions from the Government Accountability Office about Plan B.

Van Gelder told Magistrate Judge Viktor V. Pohorelsky on Thursday that Crawford had been represented by Justice Department lawyers in the reproductive rights center’s suit.

According to the transcript, Van Gelder said Crawford was under criminal investigation and that the issue of his financial disclosures “is within the grand jury.”

Before Crawford’s confirmation, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt promised the FDA would act on the Plan B application by September 2005, which led Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to lift their hold on Crawford’s nomination. But after he was confirmed, Crawford postponed indefinitely any decision on Plan B.

Simon Heller, an attorney for the reproductive rights center, said the FDA had long insisted its actions over Plan B were not unusual.

“It would be remarkable if the Justice Department was conducting a criminal investigation of Plan B and at the same time asserting in a civil case that everything done was normal,” Heller said.