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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Framingham firm’s owner pleads Fifth

Barry Cadden, owner of the Framingham pharmacy whose drugs have been linked to hundreds of fungal meningitis cases and at least 32 deaths, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and declined to answer questions Wednesday during a congressional hearing in Washington on the outbreak.

Cadden walked into the hearing room accompanied by three other men, including two attorneys. After being sworn in, he refused to respond to questions. He read from an index card four times in response to questions:

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“Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer [because] of my constitutional rights and privileges, including the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.’’

Cadden, who has not made any public comments since the outbreak began and the New England Compounding Center was shuttered last month, was subpoenaed to testify before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Lawmakers said they wanted to question him and public health officials about whether the outbreak could have been prevented.

When Representative Cliff Sterns, a Republican from Florida and chairman of the subcommittee, asked Cadden if he would invoke the Fifth in response to all questions, Cadden said, “Yes.”

Sterns told him he could go, and a crush of television cameras followed him for about a block as he left the building. Without responding to reporters’ question, he got into a black SUV, which sped away.

Previously in a letter to the committee, attorney Bruce A. Singal said questions about the outbreak “have anguished my client since the terrible news broke about the tragic deaths and illnesses that have been imputed to the drug compounded at NECC. I understand that in order to try to answer those questions, he has devoted himself to cooperating with the FDA and CDC in assuring the quickest and most complete possible recall of all relevant product. He has done so in the hope that his efforts may minimize any further potential risk to the public health.”

While Cadden “strongly desires” to answer the committee’s questions, Singal wrote that he had recommended that he not do so because of the ongoing state and federal investigations into the outbreak.

After testifying before a state hearing this morning on Beacon Hill, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. JudyAnn Bigby said she was “disappointed” that Cadden did not respond to questioning, because much remains unanswered about New England Compounding.

“He’s the only one that can answer” some of those questions, she said.

Kay Lazar and Liz Kowalczyk of the Globe staff reported today that Cadden was chosen to be on a state task force to write rules for compounding pharmacies at the same time that state and federal regulators were investigating his company.

Records obtained by the Globe also showed that some officials of the state pharmacy board learned in 2006 that the leader of an Illinois company chosen to monitor the pharmacy had been convicted of fraud. But they did not apparently inform board members before the board voted to accept the firm’s findings that New England Compounding had made satisfactory improvements, a decision that allowed the pharmacy to avoid probation.

Big questions have been raised about oversight from both state and federal regulators who repeatedly found problems at the pharmacy but did little about them.

US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and Dr. Lauren Smith, interim commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, also are testifying today. A Senate health committee will hold its own hearing Thursday focused on bigger implications of the outbreak and regulatory issues.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are hosting the first of several hearings on the troubled Department of Public Health, which oversees the Board of Registration in Pharmacy. The meningitis outbreak is the second major scandal the department has faced this fall. A chemist at a drug lab that was overseen by the department was arrested and accused of tampering with drug samples, throwing into question thousands of convictions.

Bigby told lawmakers that the Patrick administration will be scrutinizing the structure of state boards that oversee health professions. The pharmacy board historically has been made up of pharmacists.

“While it is important that professional expertise be represented, there needs to be a better balance of oversight to include members who are free of conflict,” Bigby said. “All representatives must embody the principles of quality, safety, and transparency.”

The three House members leading the state hearings -- Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, House chairman for the Joint Committee on Public Health; Representative David Linsky, chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight; and Representative Harold Naughton, chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security -- grilled Bigby on her agency’s procedures to ensure accountability and transparency in overseeing the state’s pharmacies.

“If there were more resources, it would be possible to do more unannounced inspections that are not related to licensure,” Bigby said, referring to the five additional inspectors the agency recently hired temporarily to conduct surprise inspections of the state’s 25 compounding pharmacies that produce sterile injectable medicines similar to the now-closed New England Compounding Center.

Linksy told her, if the department needs more money, “get us a request for more resources.”

Liz Kowalczyk and Kay Lazar of the Globe staff contributed to this story from Boston and Washington, D.C. Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.

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