Each morning George Luber, a world-renowned scientist, heads to a spare bedroom converted into a home office, logs onto a computer and downloads an assignment.
Usually, he’s told to review scientific papers, often on unfamiliar subjects. Sometimes there is no assignment. The routine, for which he is paid his supervisor’s salary, $148,000 a year, runs eight-plus hours each day.
Welcome to Dr. Luber’s Limbo, a forced exile from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where the epidemiologist who once ran the CDC’s Climate and Health Program is now persona non grata at the agency headquartered in Atlanta.
He is, as Dean Wormer said in the movie “Animal House,” on Double Secret Probation. There is said to be a BOLO (be on the lookout) issued to CDC guards to stop Luber if he tries to enter the facility.
This is not unheard of. In 2008, a CDC scientist questioned whether Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers that housed Hurricane Katrina victims caused cancer. According to a congressional committee, “Apparently in retaliation, Dr. (Christopher) De Rosa was removed from his post and given a job … that appears to include no real responsibilities.”
Luber was once a star at the CDC. He did numerous speeches and media interviews about how climate change can impact health. He even flew in a helicopter with actor Matt Damon in a Showtime special on the subject.
But it all went south two years ago, his lawyer says, when Luber refused to knuckle under to CDC honchos who worried about antagonizing the incoming Trump administration.
Luber had organized a symposium on climate change, with Al Gore as the keynote speaker. CDC managers told Luber it wouldn’t be politically prudent for the agency to sponsor such a public event so soon after Trump’s inauguration, said Kevin Bell, a staff lawyer for PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), which is representing Luber.
“They could feel the winds turning after November 2016,” said Bell. “He was called in and told to tone down the climate stuff.”
Luber was told to sign a letter canceling the event but refused, saying a retreat on the subject “would undermine the scientific integrity of the agency,” PEER wrote in a summary of the case.
The event’s cancellation prompted national news stories, and CDC bosses blamed Luber — incorrectly, Bell said — for leaking it. Then “the press calls or requests for comment on various matters he had received for years suddenly ceased,” according to the PEER summary.
A year later, in 2018, the CDC decided to merge its Climate Program (with about 18 employees) into a larger program focusing on asthma. Luber, pushed back, saying the climate work would be hidden and the $10 million budgeted by Congress for the program would be dissipated in the larger asthma outfit, PEER said.
In March 2018, CDC bosses sent him home, saying they had “troubling” allegations against him. And, according to PEER, his bosses revoked “his badge, phone and credentials,” placed him on a BOLO (be on the lookout) list as a security risk, and barred him “from entering the facility except under armed guard and with prior approval.”
In October 2018, his boss moved to fire him, saying Luber turned in incorrect time cards, didn’t get proper approval for a couple of writing projects and teaching a course at Emory University, and that while attending a seminar in Alaska, he went on a fishing trip and was hung over during a presentation.
Luber, in a lengthy response, noted that in 16 years at the CDC he had never been reprimanded and had never received an evaluation rating lower than 4.2 out of 5.
Meanwhile, PEER was preparing a whistleblower complaint alleging CDC retaliation because of Luber “protesting illegal diversion of climate science funding and staffing … and pointing out violations of CDC’s own Scientific Integrity Policy.”
In December, as The New York Times sniffed around, the CDC backed off firing Luber.
“However, the agency did not retract these claims; they just said they’re not going to remove him,” Bell told me. He added that a CDC supervisor told other employees never to mention Luber’s name, that he’s “toxic.”
So, he remains in Nowheresville, unable to go to the CDC or even speak to colleagues, and is left performing busy work.
I called the CDC and emailed a list of questions about the allegations. CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben would only “confirm (Luber’s) employment at CDC,” adding she could say no more about him because it was a personnel matter.
“CDC continues its longstanding work to support federal, state, local, and tribal health agencies to prevent and adapt to the health effects of climate events and climate change,” she said, sending along some links from the CDC’s website.
One site states, “There is widespread scientific consensus that the world’s climate is changing. CDC’s Climate and Health Program is the national leader in empowering communities to protect human health from a changing climate.”
As to the contention that the CDC is gagging Luber, Harben said employees can “speak on behalf of their work.” Well, what about all the other stuff?
“If he speaks about his work or personnel matters, that’s up to him,” she said.
Bell declined to let Luber talk, saying the CDC could be setting a “whistleblower trap,” using anything Luber says “to justify a new termination on grounds that it’s conduct unbecoming his position.”
Next month, the semi-gagged Luber will receive a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, named after Hugh Hefner, whose magazine had readers buying it for the articles, not the centerfolds. (At least that’s what we all said.)
His daughter, Christie Hefner, said Luber “is one of America’s brave free-speech heroes. Despite the CDC’s continued attempts to silence him, Dr. Luber risked his job and refused to keep a low profile regarding the Trump administration’s denial of climate change and the dismantling of the Climate and Health Program.”
Bell said the CDC turned down Luber’s request that he be allowed to attend the banquet to pick up his award. After calls from The AJC last week, the agency cleared Luber to go.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.