Ga. congressman’s pharmaceutical interests raise questions

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter has made clear that he would like nothing more than a seat on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee when Congress reconvenes in the new year.

The placement is a highly prized one. The committee is one of the last remaining legislative powerhouses on Capitol Hill, with a wide jurisdiction over health care, energy, manufacturing and telecommunications. Big donors tend to come with it.

And as Carter, R-Pooler, notes in his pitch to colleagues, Energy and Commerce oversees prescription drug price increases and the user fees aimed at expediting the review of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

That fact has raised questions among good government advocates about whether conflicts of interest would arise should Carter, a pharmacist before he was elected to Congress, be appointed to the panel.

“There’s certainly what is defined as conflict of interest by law and there’s conflict of interest by common sense,” said William Perry, the head of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, “and what Buddy Carter’s doing violates most people’s common sense understanding of conflict of interest and ethics.”

House ethics rules state that lawmakers can't use their official position for personal financial gain, but beyond that the guidelines give a lot of leeway to members of Congress to decide which of their activities might constitute a conflict of interest.

It’s common for members of Congress with specific professional expertise to join the Capitol Hill committees that oversee the industries in which they once worked. The House Ethics Committee allows lawmakers to vote on legislation that could benefit their industry, but not on anything that would directly benefit themselves.

In Carter’s case, the outside scrutiny focuses on his past ownership of three local pharmacies.

When Carter arrived in Congress in early 2015, he transferred ownership of those businesses to his wife in order to comply with House rules, according to financial disclosure forms. Two of those pharmacies have since been sold, Carter said.

Ethics watchdogs say that an appointment to the House Energy and Commerce Committee would put Carter in position to vote on legislation that could benefit the business that he transferred to his wife. That would violate the spirit of the ethics rules, they say.

Brinkley Serkedakis, the director of the Georgia branch of the good government group Common Cause, said Carter should not be seeking the committee assignment.

“I think that if he’s going to continue to have immediate family members owning his businesses who would financially benefit from some of these measures, then no, he shouldn’t be doing it,” Serkedakis said.

Carter said he’s been in constant touch with the House Ethics Committee to make sure he wasn’t breaking any rules.

“I don’t think there’s any conflict of interest whatsoever,” he said in an interview Friday. “I think it would be irresponsible of me not to use my expertise from years in health care to participate in the discussion of health care.”

Past work

This is not the first time Carter's legislative work has raised eyebrows about a potential conflict of interest.

Similar questions arose in 2014, when as a state senator Carter introduced a bill that placed restrictions on pharmacy benefits managers, who administer prescription plans for insurance companies and negotiate the prices people pay for certain drugs. His critics said the bill would directly benefit pharmacists and few others.

Carter stood by his work and framed it as a consumer-friendly bill, but he later acknowledged to Fox 5 that it should have been offered by another lawmaker. The measure failed to advance.

Since arriving on Capitol Hill two years ago, Carter has kept his close ties to the pharmaceutical world.

He’s traveled on the dime of several industry trade groups to speak at a handful of conferences in cities such as Las Vegas and St. Augustine, Fla., according to the nonpartisan LegiStorm, which compiles federal data on privately funded lawmaker trips.

His campaign committee has raised upward of $220,000 over the past two years from the political action committees of pharmaceutical companies and individuals who work in the industry, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of federal filings found. And that doesn’t include the dozens of other health care-related groups who have also given to Carter’s re-election campaign.

He also came under fire recently for co-sponsoring several bills on Capitol Hill that critics say would specifically aid community pharmacists, including one that would allow pharmacists to be paid by Medicare in exchange for giving patients immunizations and wellness screenings. One of the other bills would force pharmacy benefits managers to be more transparent in their pricing.

Carter on Friday tied criticism of his record to the pharmacy benefits managers, or PBMs, a group that often butts heads with pharmacists.

“There’s no question that the PBMs are behind this,” he said. “They do not want me on the (Energy and Commerce) Committee because let me tell you, right now one of the main topics that’s being discussed is price increases on prescription drugs. We are going to get to the bottom of that, and I’m going to get to the bottom of that. We’re going to have transparency.”

Tighter guidelines?

Carter certainly isn’t the first lawmaker to face questions about his professional ties.

The House Ethics Committee this summer extended its probe into allegations that Texas U.S. Rep. Roger Williams tacked an amendment onto a federal highway bill that privately benefited a car dealership he owned.

Ethics watchdogs say politicians are given too much leeway under the current system and that in the midst of President-elect Donald Trump’s “drain the swamp” push lawmakers should re-examine the rules they write for themselves. But they aren’t holding their breath.

“Members are extremely reluctant to do anything that would tie their hands,” said Aaron Scherb, Common Cause’s director of legislative affairs. “So unless there’s a scandal it’s unlikely we’re going to see any sort of change in the near term.”

As for Carter, he’ll have to wait a few more weeks to find out whether he received his coveted committee spot — Speaker Paul Ryan said that he won’t be announcing committee assignments until January.

In the meantime, Carter continues to lobby for the position.

“This is not about profit. This is not about income,” he said. “This is about patient care.”