Congress

Dems seek delay in Price vote – as biomedical CEO says nothing wrong in stock deal

Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., right, accompanied by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., right, accompanied by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. AP

The chief executive officer of an Australian biomedical company at the center of a Trump administration confirmation battle denied impropriety Monday, even as Senate Democrats called to postpone a vote for Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Price.

In an email interview with McClatchy, Innate Immunotherapeutics CEO Simon Wilkinson disputed that Price got insider or privileged information about the company before he purchased the stock. The company stood to benefit from legislation that allows for speedier clinical drug trials.

“The company believes that recent reporting by many U.S. firms has failed to present all the relevant facts and/or has failed to provide the appropriate context,” Wilkinson said.

But Senate Democrats said in a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch that they remain “unsatisfied” with Price’s explanation.

Price, R-Ga., is scheduled to go before the committee for a vote Tuesday, but Democrats say he has not responded to their questions about his finances.

Until Price responds “and has provided documents sought in connection with his inappropriate and potentially illegal investment activities, his nomination should not move forward,” wrote Sens. Patty Murray, Al Franken, Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren.

“The Senate has a responsibility to thoroughly vet and evaluate each nominee, rather than acting as a rubber stamp for the new administration,” the four members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee wrote. They criticized what they said was a Republican “rush to confirm...despite outstanding and significant questions about (Price’s) qualifications and ethical conduct.”

Republicans hope Price will play a leading role in rolling back former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, but Democrats have looked to stall his nomination, raising repeated questions about his stock trades.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Price got a “privileged offer” to buy stock in a biotechnology company, which is not what he told Congress earlier this month. The newspaper reported that Price testified in his Senate confirmation hearings on Jan. 18 and 24 that the discounted shares he bought in Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd., an Australian medical biotechnology company, “were available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.”

But the newspaper reported that Price instead “was one of fewer than 20 U.S. investors who were invited last year to buy discounted shares of the company.”

Price has denied any wrongdoing and Hatch, R-Utah, has accused Democrats of launching “grossly exaggerated and distorted attacks” on the nominee.

Price was not an “initial” investor in a private offering of company stock but rather heard about the offering through a “family and friends” offer that gave first shot to people who had been advised about the offering by people who own significant shares, Wilkinson, the company’s CEO said.

In this case that was Rep. Christopher Collins, R-N.Y., according to Wilkinson and Price’s congressional testimony.

Collins’ involvement in the company dates back to 2005, Wilkinson said, when he and a group of friends and family were accredited “sophisticated investors” took a stake in the company. This was about seven years before Rep. Collins won his congressional seat, he said.

“Over the years Mr. Collins and other U.S. investors have supported the Company through multiple capital raises,” Wilkinson said, noting that the terms were the same for all investors, whether in the United States, Australia or New Zealand.

Where Price has drawn the ire of congressional Democrats is the hair-splitting language he used when testifying that he did not trade on inside information but rather information “available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.”

Senate Democrats, who have also criticized Price for supporting cuts to federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid, are mostly expected to vote against Price, but they don’t have the votes to block his nomination.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who last week challenged Price on how he could meet Trump’s promise that a Republican plan for health care would be better than the current system if protections for pre-existing conditions and other Affordable Care Act provisions are repealed, said earlier this month she’d vote against him.

“His policies are not in the best interest of Michigan families and, therefore, I cannot support his nomination,” Stabenow said.

Republicans are expected to support Price and are hoping the former chairman of the House Budget Committee will head up the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.

Opponents of Republican efforts to repeal the health care law plan to launch protests outside the hearing room.

A political action committee that backs Trump has been running an ad urging viewers to call senators in support of Price. In the ad, as a picture Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer flashes on the screen, a narrator accuses “some D.C. insiders” of “playing politics” by seeking to block Price’s nomination.

The ads are from 45Committee, the arm of a Super PAC that is not required to disclose its donors. News reports have said the group is led by billionaire TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson is its largest donor.

Schumer, who sits on the finance committee, announced on Facebook on Monday that he’ll vote against Price, along with fellow Trump nominees Rep. Mick Mulvaney for Budget Director, Steve Mnuchin for Treasury, Scott Pruitt for EPA and Andy Puzder for Labor.

The nominees “have repeatedly shown they will not put the American people or the laws of our nation first,” Schumer wrote.

Lesley Clark: lclark@mcclatchydc.com, 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

Kevin G. Hall: khall@mcclatchydc.com, 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall

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