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Caputo takes leave of absence in furor over political meddling at CDC

Associated Press file photo

Michael Caputo, the East Aurora political consultant  embroiled in a furor over political meddling with the coronavirus response, is taking a leave of absence from his Health and Human Services communications post, the government announced Wednesday.

The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that Caputo was taking the time “to focus on his health and the well-being of his family.”

The Trump appointee also was accused of trying to muzzle a scientific weekly put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and his leave was announced on a day when the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis had requested confirmation that Caputo and others would testify before the committee.

Statement from the Dept. of Health and Human Services: Today, the Department of Health and Human Services is announcing that HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo has decided to take a leave of absence to focus on his health and the well-being of his family. Mr. Caputo will be on leave for the next 60 days. Dr. Paul Alexander, Senior Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, was hired to engage with the department on a temporary basis. Dr. Alexander will be leaving the department. Ryan Murphy, as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, will lead the day-to-day operations of the office during this time. Mr. Murphy has previously served as Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.

Caputo, the department’s top spokesman, apologized on Tuesday to his staff for a Facebook video in which he reportedly said scientists battling the coronavirus are conspiring against President Donald Trump and warned of shooting in America if Trump were to lose the November election.

His leave comes after CDC Director Robert Redfield said he was "saddened" when asked about the Facebook remarks during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

"CDC is made up of thousands of dedicated men and women, highly competent. It is the premier public health agency in the world, dedicated 24/7 to using their skills to protect the American public and the world from the health issues," Redfield said. "And it deeply saddened me that those false accusations were made (against) a group of really unbelievably professional people that serve this nation."

On Monday, the House Select Committee on The Coronavirus Crisis sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Redfield, asking to have Caputo and several others offer testimony about possible political interefence into the CDC's Mortality and Morbity Weekly Report (MMRW). A spokesperson for the committee could not be reached to comment on whether that testiony was still required.

Caputo, a fierce Trump loyalist who had no health care experience when he was appointed to the HHS job, had become a significant new problem for a White House that has struggled all year with its coronavirus response. Democrats on Capitol Hill had called for Caputo’s resignation.

Caputo has been active in WNY politics for years and for several months in 2017 served as the New York State communications director for Donald Trump's initial presidential campaign. He was the campaign manager for Carl Paladino's gubernatorial campaign in 2010 and while working in Washington remains an East Aurora resident.

His appointment at the health agency was seen as an attempt by the White House to exert more control over Azar, who other administration officials were trying to blame for the government’s slow response in the initial weeks of the pandemic.

News reports alleged last week that Caputo’s office tried to take over and muzzle the MMRW, triggering the House Selct subcomittee's call for an investigation. The MMRW is a CDC weekly report that publihes what is supposed to be authoritative, unvarnished information about disease-fighting efforts, including, most importantly at present, COVID-19.

Then on Monday came an account of the video on Caputo’s personal Facebook page in which he accused government scientists of conspiring against Trump and suggested violence could break out after the Nov. 3 election.

On a taxpayer-funded podcast earlier this summer, he accused Democrats and the media of not wanting a coronavirus vaccine until after the elections in order to defeat Trump.

“There are people in the United States government on the Democrats’ side ... (who) do not want a vaccine,” he said. “They don’t want a vaccine until Nov. 4,” he added, citing the day after the election.

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Dave Debo's journalism career runs the gamut from public radio to commercial radio, from digital projects to newspapers. With over 30 years of experience, he's produced national television news programs and has worked as both a daily and weekly print journalist and web editor.