A policy-focused Democrat-led House panel, in a move described as unprecedented by the chairwoman, allowed a witness, federal vaccine specialist Dr. Rick Bright who claims to be a whistleblower, to bring a lawyer to counsel him during his testimony Thursday against U.S. President Donald Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I think this is the first time,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health holding the hearing, conceded, later adding, “We have another first here.”
Eshoo claimed she had no idea his lawyer would accompany Dr. Bright during his testimony until Thursday morning.
“When Dr. Bright came in this morning with his attorney, she requested a microphone. So as a courtesy, I’ve extended the microphone Now, she’s not a witness … we are not going to ask her questions. She’s simply accompanying her client.”
Dr. Bright brought Debra Katz, the lawyer who became known for representing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford when she testified against the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh with claims of sexual assault.
Kavanaugh’s accuser Ford first went to Chairwoman Eshoo with the sexual misconduct allegations.
Although the Democrat leadership of the House panel argued that Katz was not a witness, the lawyer interjected when lawmakers questioned Dr. Bright, directing him on what to answer and sometimes even answering for him.
The lawyer’s presence made the event look like the failed impeachment hearings to remove Trump from office.
Republicans argued that the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations (O&I) is the proper venue for a witness to bring their counsel, not the policy-focused panel holding the hearing.
Rep. Greg Walden from Oregon, the top Republican on the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, noted that it was unorthodox for a witness to bring a lawyer to a non-O&I hearing.
Walden convinced the chairwoman to follow some of the O&I protocols for when a witness brings a counsel, including having the lawyer identified herself, something that the Democrats were seemingly not planning to do.
At the beginning of the hearing, there was no nameplate identifying Katz at the witness table.
Unlike what is done at O&I when a whistleblower testifies, Chairwoman Eshoo refused to swear the witness in.
“All witnesses know that it’s illegal to lie to congress and in our subcommittee, unlike O&I — they’re the only subcommittee that, I mean, it’s a practice, it’s a tradition, but we don’t swear people in,” she said.
Earlier during the hearing, Walden told the chairwoman:
It is extraordinarily unusual to have a government witness, a private individual, with private counsel at the witness table and with a microphone. And so I’m just trying to get s clarification for future precedence-setting from the committee.
Chairwoman Eshoo acknowledged that a witness bringing a lawyer to a non-O&I hearing is unprecedented.
Democrats and Dr. Bright himself acknowledged he was not testifying in his whistleblower capacity, but as a federal employee expressing his personal views, not those of HHS.
Rep. Walden stressed that allowing a witness to bring his or her lawyer to policy hearing set a precedent.
“The witness is not here in his whistleblower capacity,” Walden said, later adding, “We just don’t do this type of activity at this and the other policy committee.”
Dr. Bright has come forward as a so-called whistleblower claiming he was demoted for exposing U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) practices that posed public-health risk during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
He has hired anti-Kavanaugh Katz and Lisa Banks to help him make his case.
Republicans accused the Democrat chairwoman of scheduling the hearing before Dr. Bright filed a whistleblower complaint last week. The GOP lawmakers said they learned of the hearing from a tweet.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has reportedly determined there were “reasonable grounds” to believe the Bright’s ouster was retaliatory and recommended that he be allowed to remain at his job until a probe is complete. HHS is reportedly reviewing the office’s determination.
Before his demotion, Dr. Bright served as the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) at HHS. He is now a National Institutes of Health (NIH) senior adviser. NIH is also an HHS component.