N.Y. Doctor Boasted of Ties to Hill

Posted August 13, 2004 at 5:42pm

A New York doctor reportedly under investigation in connection with the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks appears to have aggressively pursued relationships with key Capitol Hill lawmakers during the late 1990s as he sought Congressional support and funding to develop an academy to train firefighters, police and paramedics how to respond to a terrorist attack.

Lawmakers who came into contact with Kenneth Berry said they remember little or nothing about the emergency-room physician whose homes in Wellsville, N.Y., and Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., were searched earlier this month by federal agents working on the “Amerithrax” case.

To date, no charges have been filed against Berry in the anthrax case, and no evidence has been made public that connects him to the attacks. Point Pleasant police said during a press conference last week that the 46-year-old doctor has denied any involvement in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

But Berry’s personal Web site is raising eyebrows on Capitol Hill. When asked about the numerous references to lawmakers on the site, several Members of Congress who were cited on it suggested, through their aides, that the physician embellished his association with them.

“He has no idea who this gentleman is,” said an aide to Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.). While Weldon’s office did confirm that he spoke at several conferences on medical preparedness for chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism organized by Berry between 1997 and 1999, they disputed Berry’s depiction of his relationship with Weldon.

Berry’s PREEMPT conferences appear to have been legitimate meetings attended by a diverse crowd of experts in the emergency and counterterrorism community. They focused on everything from triage and decontamination in a nuclear environment to workshops on hypothetical anthrax attacks, according to agendas for the events posted on his Web site.

At these events, Weldon offered a legislative perspective on the progress and pitfalls of WMD preparedness, the aide confirmed.

But on his Web site, Berry — a 1983 graduate of the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine in Montserrat — states that PREEMPT Medical Counter-Terrorism Inc., a company he founded in 1997, “maintains[s] a relationship with the Congressional Fire Services Institute through Congressman Curt Weldon (R-Pa.).”

Both Weldon and the Congressional Fire Services Institute, a nonprofit policy group that educates Members on fire- and life-safety issues, denied that such a connection exists.

Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, said he was surprised last week to receive a call from a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who wanted to know about his group’s involvement with Berry and PREEMPT.

In an interview, Webb said Berry had “grossly exaggerated any type of relationship” with the institute and added that he had only spoken with Berry by phone on a few occasions.

“I had about three or four conversations with the guy,” explained Webb, who recalled Berry as a “braggadocious” individual. “He had a conference and spoke highly of his conference — and very highly of his credentials.”

Berry did not respond to an e-mail requesting an interview for this story. A home phone number in Wellsville, N.Y., that was listed in a 1997 letter was disconnected, and no other phone numbers for him could be obtained.

Other lawmakers who were cited on Berry’s Web site raised questions about Berry’s portrayal of their connection.

According to old conference agendas posted on Berry’s site, former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and current Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) were listed as “video” participants in the event.

A former aide to Nunn said the Senator had cooperated with Berry and made a videotaped interview “talking about the need for physicians to be trained for first-response WMD,” but aides to Lugar and Specter did not recall the Senators participating in the event on camera.

Specter spokesman Charles Robbins said that he was puzzled by Berry’s reference to video participation by Specter. He noted that his office could not locate a copy of any such video.

And while Berry’s Web site lists Specter among many officials he met with in 1997 and 1998, Robbins said that the Senator had no recollection of such meetings and could find no evidence that Berry had ever met with the Senator or his staff on the Veterans Affairs Committee.

“I have no evidence that any staff-level meetings took place,” Robbins said. “I checked the records and asked the people who were around. I have not only no confirmation, but also no evidence of any of this.”

At the same time, Robbins noted that it would not be unheard of for legislative staff to have conversations with a broad spectrum of individuals, and he did not rule out the possibility that Barry might have had a conversation with someone in his office.

“When somebody approaches us — a constituent, or somebody in a group that wants to talk about an issue of great national importance like national security — that’s what people in the legislative community do,” Robbins remarked. “On daily basis, people in this office meet with a multitude of people.”

An aide to Lugar also said that Ken Myers, a top Lugar aide on foreign affairs matters, does not recall meeting Berry on March 15, 1997, as indicated on Berry’s Web site. The aide said, however, that it is possible a meeting took place, given Lugar’s involvement in the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Domestic Preparedness Program, which authorized training, equipment and technical assistance to 120 of the nation’s largest urban areas.

“It’s certainly plausible they met,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesman Andy Fisher said. In that period, he said, “there were lots of conferences and meetings. … Almost all the money was guided toward the Department of Defense to do the training, and a lot of outside people were trying to get some kind of contracts or subcontracts.”

Another item on Berry’s running log of meetings was a “lunch” with Nunn, Lugar and then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick in April 1997. Fisher recalls the luncheon in question, but added that it was at a large event with “about 100 people.”

But the most extensive relationship Berry claims was with Nunn. In this case, a source close to Nunn confirms that the two were in contact but denied that any formal relationship existed.

Berry’s first known outreach efforts to Congress appear to have occurred in 1996, when he wrote then-Sen. Nunn after seeing the Georgia Democrat interviewed on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

In a March 1996 introduction letter to Nunn, portions of which are posted on his Web site, Berry wrote, “I am an emergency department physician with some experience in disaster management, and the training, preparation and education on such concerns within the emergency medicine community is next to nil. … A further phase of EMS and emergency medicine education and preparation for potential biological and/or chemical assaults needs to now ensue.”

By the following year, Berry had secured a slot as a speaker at the first annual Sam Nunn Policy Forum on Terrorism, WMD and U.S. Security in Athens, Ga. Later, he convinced Nunn to forward his ideas to then-Vice President Al Gore.

As a courtesy, Nunn decided to pass along the doctor’s information in a letter to the vice president, said a source close to Nunn.

According to their spokespeople, none of the lawmakers mentioned on Berry’s Web site has been contacted by FBI investigators.