Joe Biden’s top science adviser issued an apology after a White House investigation found “credible evidence” that he had bullied and harassed more than a dozen staffers. Despite the apology, some of the affected staff are calling for the doctor to face suspension or termination.
Politico first reported the story after gaining access to interviews and audio recordings relating to the investigation.
Dr Eric Lander – a Cabinet member and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy – is a key part of the administration’s pandemic response team. The investigation found evidence he acted in a “bullying” way toward Rachel Wallace, who worked as his general counsel.
Politico claims that on Friday, after Dr Lander became aware the publication was running a story, he issued a blanket apology email to everyone in his office.
“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 wrote, according to Politico. “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.”
The White House said that a “full and thorough investigation” was conducted into the claims against Dr Lander and that “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.”
The OSTP also issued a statement acknowledging the incidents.
“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,” it said.
While the agencies involved seem ready to move past the incident – and the press attention it generated – Ms Wallace, the general counsel allegedly demeaned by Dr Lander, is not.
“Lander’s apology did not come close to addressing the full extent of his egregious behavior,” she told Politico.
According to the outlet, Ms Wallace had declined to be interviewed but changed her mind after seeing his apology letter on Friday.
“He did so much more than speak to staff in a ‘disrespectful or demeaning way,’” she said. “Lander’s apology was not only disingenuous. It compounded the deep hurt and damage he has caused by ignoring these other acts of aggression, harassment and retaliation.”
She claimed that numerous women who worked with the doctor have left their workstations “in tears, traumatised, and feeling vulnerable and isolated.”
The report also claims that Dr Lander engaged in “disrespectful interactions with … OSTP leadership” and that he had spoken “harshly and disrespectfully to colleagues in front of other colleagues.”
Christian Peele, the White House’s deputy director of management and administration for personnel, created recordings explaining the evidence collected against Dr Lander.
“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,” Mr Peele said in the recording.
According to the report, 14 of the 140 people who work in the office have reported toxic work interactions with Dr Lander. They claim he bullied, cut off or dismissed his subordinates, yelled at them and sometimes humiliated them in front of their peers.
The investigation granted the respondents anonymity because they feared Dr Lander might retaliate.
“[Lander] has a bit of Jekyll and Hyde personality. If he’s in a meeting with external people, he’s positive and ebullient, even. It’s behind closed doors that he changes,” one OSTP staffer told Politico. “There are a lot of brilliant people in this country. I completely reject the notion that his brilliance is so singular and critical to the nation that his behavior is excusable.”
The Independent has reached out to Dr Lander’s office for comment.
The corrective action suggested by Mr Peele in his recordings is for Dr Lander to have more collaborative meetings with his subordinates, and more training for all of his staff on workplace policy. Despite the fact that Dr Lander was the one at the heart of the complaint, Mr Peele’s recommendations would force the entire staff into spending more face time with the doctor and more of their time in training.
Politico reports that eight former staffers wanted Dr Lander to face stiffer punishments, like mandate training aimed solely at him, or a suspension from his duties. Others called for his termination and cited Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day zero-tolerance policy.
“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,” Mr Biden said.