FDA’s Special Agents: On the Job to Protect the Public

By: John Roth

As noted in my previous three posts, FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) is an integral part of FDA’s mission to protect the public’s health. Our top-flight special agents –who have investigative authority similar to other federal law enforcement agencies – give the FDA unique fact-finding tools and provide for strong, industry-wide deterrence. Their work is different from, but enhances, the regulatory inspectors and investigators that make up the bulk of FDA’s field operations. 

Who are these special agents? They are federal law enforcement officers and they have experience: our average agent has been in federal law enforcement for over ten years, a necessary requirement given the sophistication required to work the wide range of OCI cases. 

Each special agent undergoes specialized training to be effective in their job, including firearms and personal safety training, advanced Special Agent training, and training in FDA law.  Throughout their career, OCI agents will keep up to date on the latest trends by participating in what is called “in-service training.”  Additionally, agents will take specialized training in other areas of federal law enforcement, including cybercrime investigations, computer forensics, financial tracing/asset forfeiture investigation, polygraphy, leadership and management, and advanced law enforcement techniques.

As you can see from this training regimen, we demand a lot from our agents – these skill areas are exceedingly complex. Moreover, agents must also learn such intangible skills as being able to work well with others, remain alert and focused, and hone that age-old requirement for any law enforcement officer: good instincts and a devotion to old fashioned shoe-leather doggedness. 

Our agents are located in more than 37 offices nationwide, from Hawaii to Puerto Rico, and work with law enforcement counterparts in many countries, as well as international organizations like Interpol, Europol, and the Permanent Forum on International Pharmaceutical Crime. 

No agent can go it alone, of course, and we rely on an outstanding supporting cast to help us: our “can-do” support staff, who make running a complex nationwide law enforcement program look effortless, the unmatched scientific and public health experts in the FDA centers and the civil-side inspectors and compliance officers in the field, who we rely on for help with complex, scientific cases, and finally prosecutors in the Department of Justice, who have embraced the FDA public health mission. 

My three previous FDA Voice posts highlighted several of the more significant, colorful, and sometimes tragic cases with which OCI has been involved. The first post looked at how we use our top-flight federal agents to work undercover in investigating shadowy overseas drug counterfeiters. The second post looked at high-profile instances of non-compliance right here in the United States – with our work resulting in a $1.4 billion fine. The third post looked at the callous and utter disregard for life caused by corporate actors, which necessitated a criminal response. Yes, these cases involved detailed, complex organization and a range of professional skills. 

But let me emphasize: OCI is doing this work every day. In fact, about every 30 hours, throughout the year, we are gaining a conviction, in crimes ranging from street level pharmaceutical diversion schemes to corporate fraud. In Fiscal Year 2012, OCI agents were responsible for cases that yielded over $4.9 billion in fines and restitution – monies that are paid directly to the U.S. Government or to specific victims of the criminal acts we investigate – an average of over $22 million per special agent. 

FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigation is the only federal law enforcement agency whose mission is exclusively directed at protecting the public’s health. And, criminal enforcement is a critical part of FDA’s enforcement and compliance strategy, a strategy designed to protect people from dangerous products, fraudulent schemes, and unscrupulous criminals. 

Through these four FDA Voice posts, I hope that we have made our OCI team better known to our FDA colleagues and to the public. The vast majority of the FDA-regulated entities respond to FDA’s ordinary regulatory tools. However, OCI stands ready and on watch to locate, investigate, and bring to justice those individuals and entities who disregard and break our public health laws. 

John Roth is Director of FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations

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