Supreme Court Considers Vaccine-Autism Case While New Times Probe Draws Ire

Dr. Gary Kompothecras, an influential political donor to Gov. Charlie Crist, is at the center of a controversial study.
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The U.S. Supreme Court today is scheduled to hear a case that could have a wide-ranging impact on

hundreds of lawsuits that claim there is a direct link between autism and vaccines.

The court will decide whether the Vaccine Act approved by Congress 25 years ago to compensate minors injured by vaccines should protect the manufacturers from practically all product liability lawsuits.

Last month, Miami New Times published an article that laid out how Dr. Gary Kompothecras, an influential political donor to Gov. Charlie Crist's U.S. Senate bid, was pressuring Florida health officials into turning over scores of the state's immunization records to researchers infamous for injecting autistic children with a castration drug. ("Crist backer Gary Kompothecras bullies Florida health officials," Penn Bullock and Brandon K. Thorp, September 30). 

Dr. Kompothecras is a leading player in the "anti-vax" movement that promotes the long-discredited theory that vaccines cause autism.

The article was criticized by Robert J. Kanjian, a member of the Governor's Task Force on Autism Spectrum Disorders. Below is Mr. Kanjian's letter, followed by a response from Penn Bullock and Brandon K. Thorp, who wrote the Miami New Times article:

Mr. Chuck Strouse
Miami New Times

Dear Mr. Strouse,

I am writing you today to register my disgust at the article that was published by Miami New Times. The article contains many inaccuracies and falsehoods.  Further, it appears to be an opinion piece masquerading as a news report. 

Let me address the inaccuracies.  The article mentions me as a participant in the meeting that is the center piece of the "bullying" alleged by Miami New Times.  Firstly, I am not a Palm Beach County Commissioner.  I am a former Palm Beach County Commissioner and former Palm Beach County School Board Member.  I have not been in public office for almost two years.  I would think a quick internet check would have shown that, but the lack of research on behalf of your writers is astonishing.  I am a member of the Governor's Task Force on Autism Spectrum Disorders.  I attended the Governor's Autism Task Force Meeting April 15-16, 2010 held in Tallahassee; Dr. Gary Kompothecras is also a member of the Task Force. 

Dr. Gary was my ride back to the airport after the Task Force meeting, and he noted he needed to stop at the DOH for a quick meeting that had been arranged earlier in the day.  The meeting was attended by DOH staff members Rob Siedlecki, Dr. Shari Turner, Dr. Julia Gill, and myself.  I have never met David Foy and he was not in the meeting as the article suggests.  The meeting was very cordial and it appeared by the comments of Dr. Gill and Dr. Turner that they were pleased to be able to accommodate the research request. 

They both noted the process that needed to be followed and that the guidelines for the release of the database information would be forthcoming.  There was never a request for personal identifying data about individual children.  There was no request for data that could in anyway identify any patient.  There was no yelling at the meeting.  Since there were only five people in the room and I was one of them, I will make this very clear, if the "source" of the Miami New Times article is one of the doctors present, then they are a liar.  Of course, Miami New Times could have called me and asked me about the meeting and I would have told them what happened.  Then again, that would not have been good for the sensationalized untrue story that you ran. 

Further, the information about the Geier's seems to be biased.  I have met the Geiers; they seem to be smart and dedicated researchers.  They have not tried to sell me any product or services for my son.  They have given me and the entire Governor's Task Force information on the effects of Ethyl Mercury.  The information is troubling.  That being said, the Geier's are not part of the study that the data has been requested for, to the best of my knowledge.  I am sure that if the writers of the article state that ingredients in vaccinations cannot be a cause of autism, then the data will prove that point.  Why is the public health bureaucracy so set against people doing research on data, not patients!  I am sure that there were people saying that smoking doesn't cause cancer for many years as well; I guess we figured that one out eventually.

Dr. Gary Kompothecras is a passionate person; he has two children that have severe autism.  He has fought for many years to find the cause for this disorder that is now affecting 1/96 children.  I share his concern, my eleven year old son has autism, and I want to know why as well.  I am not anti-vaccine and neither is Dr. Gary, we are advocates against having more children become autistic.  If you have a better idea, let me know?  Meanwhile, I hope your journalistic standards are raised and your writers check the facts before defaming good people.

The bottom line is that we have an epidemic that is getting worse and we have bureaucrats standing in the way of people trying to solve the mystery.  Maybe it is time we really did raise our voices.

Robert J. Kanjian
Law Office of Robert J. Kanjian

Autism Task Force Member Launches Baseless Attacks

In a letter to the editor this week, Robert Kanjian registers "disgust" with our article from September 30, "Crist backer Gary Kompothecras bullies Florida health officials."

For those who haven't read the story, here's a summary: a controversial pair of researchers, Dr. Mark and David Geier, want access to Florida's SHOTS database -- which contains millions of residents' sealed immunization records -- so the two can investigate whether exposure to a mercury preservative in vaccines triggers autism. The Geiers are leading advocates of the largely disproven idea of a vaccine-autism link. And the two purport to be able to cure autism with the help of a castration drug called Lupron, which their clinics nationwide administer in heavy doses to autistic kids.

Even more worrying, in 2004, when the pair got access to immunization records on the national level, the CDC caught them violating protocol and jeopardizing patient privacy, and their study was terminated. For these reasons and others, the Florida Department of Health (DoH) appears reluctant to let the Geiers mine the SHOTS database, and the study remains in limbo. But a well-placed government source told Miami New Times that the Crist administration is pressuring DoH to relinquish the state's immunization records.

New Times also uncovered a menacing email in which Gary Kompothecras - a super-rich chiropractor, member of the governor's Autism Task Force, and one of Crist's biggest campaign fundraisers and closest friends - demanded the immediate acquiescence of DoH officials.

Kanjian's letter to the editor does point out one minor error in our story. Kanjian, who serves with Kompothecras on the Autism Task Force, is not a current Palm Beach County commissioner, as we identified him. He was voted out of office in 2008.

The rest of Kanjian's letter is rife with inaccuracy. He claims that the Geiers have no part in the study. He is misinformed. According to the study's own application and protocol, as submitted to the DoH in late 2009, Dr. Mark Geier is the co-principal investigator and David Geier is a sub-investigator. (The principal investigator is Dr. Raymond F. Palmer, a researcher at the University of Texas, controversial for his own studies linking mercury to autism.) If the study is approved, their research will be conducted at the Institute of Chronic Illnesses, a company run by the Geiers, apparently out of their mansion in Maryland.

Kanjian indicates that no personal identifying information from the SHOTS database has been requested. The DoH application indicates otherwise: the researchers, it explains, will telephone as many as a thousand Floridian parents whose children, according to the database, haven't been vaccinated, and ask them probing questions about their kids' health. (Evidently Palmer and the Geiers hope to find a lower prevalence of autism among unvaccinated children.) The application assures that Floridians' confidential medical information will be stored under strict security. So it will be collected, and the application stipulates that Mark Geier will have access to the data. We have to take it on faith that he won't mishandle or manipulate records, as he did national immunization records in 2004.

Kanjian's main complaint concerns our source's account of a meeting he attended on April 16 between Kompothecras and various DoH officials in Tallahassee. He acknowledges the meeting was arranged "earlier in the day" -- though he doesn't say whether David Foy, then-director of policy for Crist, set up the meeting at Kompothecras's behest, as our source claimed. But Kanjian insists that Foy did not attend, and that the mood was cordial, with DoH officials conveying their readiness to hand over the records.

What happened at the meeting is a question of differing accounts: Kanjian's and our source's. Even if the meeting was pleasant, it means little, for the internal DoH review of the study has nevertheless devolved into acrimony.

Kanjian maintains, for his own ease of argument, that the April 16 meeting is the "centerpiece" of our article's contention that Kompothecras is pressuring Florida health officials to open the SHOTS database. In fact, the meeting is a side note. The centerpiece is the apoplectic email Kompothecras sent on August 6 to DoH officials, in which he said he would fly up to Tallahassee in a week to meet with the governor's chief of staff, demanded "a clear precise timeline now!!" and ordered the doctors and civil servants of the DoH to "govern yourselves accordingly" - that is, according to his will.  

Kanjian does not even address the email. But what triggered Kompothecras's fit?

On August 5, a day earlier, Dr. Julia Gill of the DoH emailed Dr. Palmer, head of the Geiers' study, to elucidate some seemingly reasonable concerns. She asked why their data use agreement, the form for releasing the immunization records, made no apparent reference to the study's application from 2009. She also asked why "the data use agreement does not specify the exact data requested, only that all data elements will be required," adding: "This is insufficient information for the bureau to provide data." And she informed Dr. Palmer that the SHOTS database "does not have parents or families registered" and does not record "whether a parent has elected not to vaccinate their children" - facts that could render the study infeasible.

There is no evidence that the Geiers responded to her concerns. But they did imperiously reiterate their demand for access. In an email on August 6, they called the delays "completely unacceptable," and Kompothecras backed them up in his thunderous email on the same day.

Kanjian supports the study. As he writes in his letter, he has a young son with autism, and we do not doubt that his passion about the issue is well meaning. But passion does not entitle him to his own set of facts. As a public servant on the Autism Task Force, we suggest he acquaint himself with those facts before launching baseless attacks on our reportage.

-- Penn Bullock and Brandon K. Thorp

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