CDC Wastes Millions of Taxpayer Dollars, Says Senate Report

Matt Purple | July 7, 2008 | 8:23pm EDT
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( - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides an example of a big-budget federal agency getting its priorities wrong, according to an oversight report released by a Republican senator.

Among the report's findings -- a $106 million visitor center decorated with waterfalls and Japanese gardens and a $200,000 fitness center with saunas and zero-gravity chairs.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a practicing physician, released the report late last week following an exhaustive investigation. Coburn is the ranking member of a Homeland Security subcommittee that deals with federal financial management.

"CDC employs many honest, hard-working people who shoulder a very important mission for our nation," Coburn said. "Yet, like most agencies, it offers many examples of how an agency with a large budget can veer off track in prioritizing its funds."

Entitled "CDC Off Center," the report -- produced by Coburn's subcommittee -- charges that the CDC's mission has been "compromised by mismanagement" and "lavish spending." The CDC has a current annual budget of about $10 billion.

The CDC could not be reached for comment, but CDC spokesman Tom Skinner did say in a press release that the agency cooperated with the investigation and provided Coburn with "exhaustive information."

"We strive day in and day out to fulfill our commitment to the American taxpayer," he said.

One problem cited in Coburn's report is the CDC's new visitor center and communications center at the campus in Atlanta.

The $106-million Thomas R. Harkin Global Communications Center was built to replace the CDC's older visitor center, which was built only 11 years ago.

According to Coburn's report, the CDC spent $5.1 million on "audio-visual integration" for the new facility, including a 70-foot by 25-foot video wall of plasma screen televisions. A video production studio costs $18.6 million.

The grounds feature a greenscape with a stream running over artificial rocks into a pond, limestone bridges, waterfalls, Japanese gardens and fountains.

The center also boasts a statue of a woman made of vegetables, paid for by the CDC. The statue evidently is supposed to encourage visitors to eat healthier foods.

"The CDC already had a visitor center," said a Coburn staffer who asked that her name not be used. "They said they had about 15,000 visitors per year ... so it's not necessarily a bad idea, it's just a bad prioritization of funds," the staffer told Cybercast News Service.

Leslie Paige, media director at Citizens Against Government Waste, questioned whether the CDC needed a visitor center in the first place.

"It's not exactly a destination resort," she told Cybercast News Service.

The center is named after Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Ill.), formerly the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee and still a member of the committee.

Fitness center and Hollywood ties

Also raising eyebrows was a new fitness center built on the CDC's Atlanta campus in 2006.

According to Coburn's report, the 16,000-square-foot exercise facility houses more than 70 strength and cardiovascular fitness machines and an indoor cycling room with images of the Tour de France projected on the walls. It also features a sauna area worth $30,000 and dimly-lit "quiet rooms" with zero-gravity chairs, music and therapeutic pastel light shows.

In his statement, Skinner defended the fitness center, claiming that it was not a waste of money and was necessary for the well-being of CDC employees.

"We have first-rate facilities for first-rate employees," he said.

Coburn's staffer stood by the report's criticisms and said that a fitness center "should not be a priority for the CDC." She also claimed that the CDC had been dishonest about the fitness center's construction.

"We actually asked about the fitness center as it was being built, and we were told -- and we have it in writing from the CDC -- that they were not going to be purchasing any new equipment for the fitness center. They would use old fitness center equipment," she said.

According to Coburn's report, the CDC also has established a Hollywood liaison program, which collaborates with the entertainment industry to make sure that medical TV show plotlines are credible.

The agency has spent about $1.7 million since 2001 making sure that shows like "ER," "House," "24" and "Grey's Anatomy" are medically accurate. An average of $6,000 is spent per episode consult, according to the report.

Paige questioned the cost. "What we've seen in other agencies is that this entails sending delegations to Warner Brothers and Hollywood to hobnob with entertainment people," she said.

"I don't know if the CDC has done that, but what is that money going towards?" she asked.

Of the $1.7 million, $55,000 came from the CDC's terrorism account, and another $18,386 came from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The report called the decisions puzzling in a time of limited federal funds and agency calls for additional funds to prepare for potential bioterrorism attacks."

Also controversial was the CDC's push for "ER" producers to put a condom poster on the set "as a roundabout way of getting the health message to TV viewers."

Skinner did not comment on the specifics of the Hollywood liaison program, but he called it "an unusual and effective way to reach people" about their health.

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