Administration

Investigation finds top Biden science adviser bullied subordinates: report

An internal White House investigation has reportedly discovered that President Biden’s top science adviser bullied and demeaned subordinates while also violating the office’s workplace policy.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed the investigation and its findings on Monday, telling reporters that “a full and thorough investigation was conducted” after a complaint was filed regarding Eric Lander, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The complaint was aired in accordance with the White House’s safe and respectful workplace policy.

Psaki said senior White House officials told Lander at the conclusion of the investigation that “his behavior was inappropriate,” while also informing him of the “corrective action that were needed.” She said the White House will monitor Lander’s compliance with those efforts going forward.

“I’d also note that Dr. Lander also sent a message to his staff outlining some of the steps he’s intending to take to build a respectful work environment, and certainly we would encourage those and again, the team, the senior team will be watching for compliance to these steps,” Psaki added, referring to an email Lander sent to colleagues on Friday addressing his conduct.

Politico first reported on Monday that Lander, who has been cited as a central figure in the pandemic response, acted in a “bullying” way toward his then-general counsel Rachel Wallace, citing interviews and an audio recording of a briefing on the investigation’s findings.

The investigation also found that Lander and OSTP leadership had “disrespectful interactions with staff”, according to Christian Peele, the deputy director of management and administration at the White House. Politico reported on Peele’s remarks from an audio recording of the briefing on the investigation.

A representative from the White House counsel’s office was reportedly present at the briefing, which lasted about 20 minutes.

Peele also reported that the investigation uncovered “credible evidence” that Lander spoke “harshly and disrespectfully to colleagues in front of other colleagues,” according to Politico.

“The investigation found credible evidence of instances of multiple women having complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr. Lander, where he spoke to them in a demeaning or abrasive way in front of other staff,” Peele added at the briefing.

A total of 14 current and former staffers from the OSTP who worked under Lander in the past year said they operated in a toxic work environment marked by Lander bullying individuals, cutting people off and dismissing subordinates, according to Politico. About 140 people work in the office.

Nine of the current and former staffers who came forward with allegations, most of whom remained anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said Lander tended to yell and at times embarrassed personnel in front of their colleagues, according to Politico.

Lander apologized to his colleagues on Friday, writing in an email provided to The Hill, “It’s my responsibility to set a respectful tone for our community. It’s clear that I have not lived up to this responsibility.”

“I have spoken to colleagues within OSTP in a disrespectful or demeaning way. This is not only wrong, but also inconsistent with our Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy. It is never acceptable for me to speak this way,” he said.

“I am deeply sorry for my conduct, I especially want to apologize to those of you who I treated poorly or were present at the time,” he added.

The email apology reportedly came as Politico was completing an investigation into Lander’s conduct.

A White House spokesperson told Politico in a statement that “a full and thorough investigation was conducted” and “White House leadership met with Dr. Lander to discuss the seriousness of the matter and the President’s expectation that all staff interactions be conducted with respect.”

A spokesperson for the OSTP told the outlet, “The investigation found credible evidence of violations of the EOP’s Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy, and corrective action was taken consistent with those findings.”

Lander’s conduct, however, is at odds with a pledge Biden made to political appointees during their swearing-in ceremony, when he told them, “If you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot. On the spot. No ifs, ands or buts.”

Former deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo resigned from his post last February after a report surfaced that he threatened a Politico reporter because of a story she was pursuing regarding a relationship.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki at the time said, “We are committed to striving every day to meet the standard set by the President in treating others with dignity and respect, with civility and with a value for others through our words and our actions.” 

Asked on Monday why Lander is not being fired Psaki would not give a direct answer, instead emphasizing that the adviser’s behavior was unacceptable, and noting that the investigation stemmed from a complaint filed in accordance with the safe and respectful workplace policy, which the Biden administration put in place “to ensure that there was a mechanism, right, to conduct investigations as was conducted in this case, that can be thorough that result in some actions and some steps.”

Pressed on what corrective changes Lander was ordered to make, Psaki said she would check for more specific details.

Updated at 3:05 p.m.

Tags Eric Lander Jen Psaki Joe Biden science adviser White House

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