Medical Device Daily Washington Editor

Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle apologized Monday for a back-tax imbroglio even as the White House stood staunchly by the South Dakota Democrat, who has been nominated for the cabinet post of the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Daschle said he was "deeply embarrassed and disappointed" about a failure to pay more than $120,000 in back taxes after the story broke, but the news has not blunted support in the Senate, where Max Baucus (D-Montana), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has stated that his support for the Daschle nomination will continue.

The news comes in a particularly bad time, given that Daschle also is the pick to run the White House Office on Health Reform, making him a health reform czar. The revelation comes just weeks behind the disclosure that the administration's nominee for Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, also failed to pay substantial federal taxes.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Senate leaders, Daschle wrote that he apologizes "for the errors and profoundly regret that you have had to devote time to them." Despite relations with Baucus that is seen as less than amicable, Baucus indicated in a Feb. 2 statement that he "remain[s] convinced that Senator Daschle would be an invaluable and expert partner" in the push for healthcare reform.

After being nominated to the post, Daschle filed amended tax returns for three consecutive tax years starting in 2005 to report $128,203 in back taxes and $11,964 in interest. Part of that taxable income involved the use of a limousine at no charge, which was said to be valued at more than $250,000 over the three years in question.

Daschle is opposed in some quarters because of his work for the law firm of Alston & Bird (Washington), which is seen as a breaking of the pledge by the White House to avoid bringing in people that have worked in a lobbying capacity. However, Daschle also has earned speaking fees of more than $100,000, including to America's Health Insurance Plans (Washington) and Principal Life Insurance (Des Moines, Iowa).

White House promises FDA pick

The Obama administration is promising to announce its selection to take over the commissioner's post at FDA in the coming days, but the White House is still playing it's hand closely.

According to wire service reports, Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman, told reporters at a press conference that Obama "hopes in the next few days to announce a pick for commissioner at FDA." Gibbs made the comments in the shadow of the salmonella-tainted peanut butter outbreak, noting that "whether it was our own regulatory system or a company that repeatedly found salmonella in its own testing (and) would continue to ship out that product is beyond disturbing for millions of parents."

However, any nominee will likely have to wait until Daschle's back-tax embarrassment clears the Senate, a process whose end is not yet in sight.

Among the now-expanded list of potential commissioners are Joshua Sharfstein, MD, who runs the public health department for the city of Baltimore and Robert Califf, MD, a cardiologist at Duke University Medical Center (Durham, North Carolina). However, cardiologist Steve Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic (Cleveland) apparently also is still in the running.

Frank Torti, MD, is currently serving as the interim commissioner at FDA. Torti was named the agency's chief science officer last year (Medical Device Daily, April 15, 2008).

Obama wants 'complete review' of FDA

President Barack Obama is said to have ordered a "complete review" of operations at FDA as a result of the distribution of salmonella-contaminated peanut products that have sickened more than 500 people and may involved in eight deaths in an interview aired Sunday on the Today Show.

According to wire service reports, Obama told Matt Lauer, co-host of the Today Show, that the agency's failure to recognize and intercept the products was only one of numerous "instances over the last several years" in which the agency "has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch."

Obama told Lauer in the interview, which was recorded Sunday at the White House, that at a minimum, American citizens should "be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter."