Representative Dan Burton: Abusing his power to influence the outcome of the Autism Omnibus hearings?

It’s been a while since I mentioned the Autism Omnibus hearings. The Omnibus proceeding is the culmination of all the legal cases brought to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program by nearly 5,000 families who “feel” that their children’s autism was caused by vaccines. Many, but not all, of the plaintiffs blame the mercury in the thimerosal in childhood vaccines, despite there being no good evidence to support such a link. The way that the hearings are being run is that several “test cases” are being chosen by Special Masters, who hear evidence presented by the plaintiffs and the defense presented by government defense lawyers. Unfortunately, thanks to the low bar of evidence required in the Autism Omnibus hearings, the mercury hypothesis may not be a legal loser, even though it’s definitely a scientific loser, even though the test cases appear to be nothing more than tugging at the heart strings and the scientists called to testify by the defense routinely demolish the plantiffs’ “expert” witnesses.

Indeed, overall things don’t appear to be going too well for the first few test cases. Perhaps that’s why Representative Dan Burton (R-Indiana), that powerful booster of antivaccination and autism pseudoscience and quackery in the House of Representatives, that man who once had Dr. Rashid Buttar (yes, that Dr. Buttar) testify in front of his committee back when the Republicans controlled Congress, even going so far as to nominate him for an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award), has decided to enter the fray. I learn from A-CHAMP that Burton has apparently decided to try to influence the Special Masters by writing them a letter on Congressional letterhead:


A link to a PDF file of the letter can be found here. Some key text:

Further to the deliberations of the Office of Special Masters, I am enclosing a November 2007 article from the Journal of Child Neurology entitled, “Blood Levels of Mercury Are Related to Diagnosis of Autism: A Reanalysis of an Important Data Set.” I hope that the Office of Special Masters will take the article’s findings into consideration as it carries out its mandate of managing and adjudicating childhood vaccine claims.

Naturally, he can’t resist pointedly mentioning his position and power and repeating his demand:

During my tenure as Chairma of the House Committee on Government and Reform, I spent six years researching and hearing testimony from autism advocacy and scientific community about the autism epidemic sweeping our country. Over and over again, the question of causation, namely the use of thimerosal–the mercury-based vaccine preservative–in childhood vaccines was raised…For instance, the enclosed article from the reputable scientific journal…details the most recent findings of M. Catherine DeSoto, PhD, and Robert T. Hitlan, PhD, who reanalyzed an early reported dataset and found a significant relationship between the blood levels of mercury and a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

I hope that ou would agree with me that the Office of Special Masters has a duty and an obligation to review all the sound science relevant to vaccines, mercury, and autism.

This is utterly outrageous. For one thing, the Hitlan paper is a piece of crap. In essence, it’s a post hoc statistical fiddling with a dataset in which the authors substituted a one-tail t-test for the two-tail t-test originally used for what appears to be the sole reason of changing a finding that wasn’t statistically significant in the original analysis of the dataset to a statistically “significant” finding. But what’s even more disturbing is the specter of a powerful and senior Representative throwing his weight around and blatantly trying to influence the outcome of the Autism Omnibus proceeding. This is raw politics, and it strikes me as highly unethical for an elected official to be inserting himself into a high profile court case in such a public manner. You can be bet that if a CDC official had written such a letter asking the Special Masters to take into account, say the Shattuck paper or Fombonne paper from last year showing, respectively, that the “autism epidemic” is mainly due to diagnostic reclassification and that there is no evidence that vaccines, thimerosal-containing or otherwise, are associated with autism, you’d hear the mercury militia crying to high heaven about the attempt to “manipulate” the proceedings. And they’d be right. But apparently Dan Burton can blatantly try to influence the Special Masters, and he gets his letter published on A-CHAMP, separation of powers be damned.

I’m sure any legal eagles out there will correct me if I’m wrong, but if a party who is not a party to a case directly contacts the judge this way and asks him directly to consider a piece of evidence I’m pretty sure that would represent an improper attempt to influence the outcome of the legal proceedings. (In this case, it’s also a slap at the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who, in Burton’s apparent estimation, are doing so poorly that he felt the need to intervene.) If Burton weren’t trying to interfere with the legal proceedings and was truly genuinely concerned about what was happening, a far more proper course of action would have been to contact the plaintiffs’ attorneys directly and make them aware of Hitlan study. He should not have contacted the Special Masters directly and certainly not publicly. This is especially true because Burton is a powerful Representative, which makes his letter appear even more like an inappropriate attempt to influence the Special Masters’ deliberations. Personally, I wouldn’t mind it if the plaintiffs’ attorneys did enter the Hitlan paper into evidence, because it would be easy to shred, but I do mind credulous antivaccination Representatives interfering in legal proceedings.

Indeed, there’s no excuse for such a blatant ploy to influence a judicial proceeding, even if it’s cloaked in “letting the Special Masters know about” new research (which really isn’t anything new and is poorly done). I can only hope that the Special Masters saw this for the obvious attempt at influencing the proceedings that it was and reported Burton to the Department of Justice and the House Ethics Committee. At the very least, this news should be more widely disseminated, although, sadly, Burton is such a true believer in “mercury in vaccines causes autism” pseudoscience that he is probably beyond being embarrassed.