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Management, Press Flap Led to Tauzin’s Exit

For press secretaries, going off message may ruin your day, though it rarely gets you fired. Both you and the boss losing your jobs over a slip of the tongue? Seemingly impossible.But that’s apparently what happened in recent weeks at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Late Thursday night, the massive drug lobby unexpectedly announced that its top executive, ex-Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), was stepping down after five years.Tauzin did not provide specifics as to why he was leaving the group, but industry and downtown sources said recent news accounts pegging Tauzin’s departure to policy rifts with PhRMA’s board are overstated.“Phoney baloney,” one Democratic lobbyist said.Instead, pharmaceutical industry sources say Tauzin’s resignation was not only nuanced but a long time coming. A former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce panel, the ex-Creole State lawmaker was known for a breezy management style, his love of hunting and loyalty to his staff. It was precisely those three qualities, industry sources said, that ultimately forced his early resignation.Even more, sources confirmed that Tauzin’s imminent departure was an open secret within the trade organization’s Chinatown headquarters. Tauzin would leave either when President Barack Obama signed a health care reform bill or in spring 2010, whichever happened sooner.It was only after a longtime Tauzin press aide, PhRMA Senior Vice President Ken Johnson, apparently misspoke to a New York Times reporter late last year that sources claimed pharmaceutical executives decided that enough was enough: Tauzin and his top staffer would be allowed to depart quietly — but quickly.“Ken Johnson killed him,” a Democratic lobbyist said.Johnson, in an e-mail statement, said he was misunderstood.“The quote in the New York Times was taken out of context, but our board did not know that at the time,” Johnson said. “It’s tough to bat a thousand in this business. Other than that, I am going to uncharacteristically bite my tongue. It serves no useful purpose to comment further. We are totally focused right now on assisting with the leadership transition and making sure that our incoming chairman, [Pfizer CEO Jeffrey Kindler], hits the ground running.”In the Dec. 23 Times story, Johnson, who was a top aide to Tauzin on Capitol Hill, said drug companies were willing to renegotiate the $80 billion health care deal they cut with the White House.“There is still a gap that has to be closed between what the Senate is proposing and what the House passed,” Johnson told the Times. “I think there is a growing sense that they may need some additional help to achieve that goal, and as a result we are willing to listen.”Pharmaceutical executives were irate. Sources said that not only were they blind-sided by Johnson’s apparent offer on behalf of drug companies to throw more money onto the health care bonfire, but executives were also apparently bewildered as to why a staffer, not Tauzin himself, was being interviewed by one of the nation’s largest newspapers.In response to the Times article, members of PhRMA’s board held an emergency Christmas Eve conference call to vent about Johnson’s wager and to plot their next move.“There was no question [the board] was upset,” a pharmaceutical industry source said.

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