REEDLEY – From Nicole Zieba’s account, information on the presence of an illegal lab in the city couldn’t be public sooner to avoid interference with ongoing investigations.
Reedley city and Fresno County officials have been criticized for what many in the public feel was a dereliction on the government’s part to inform them of an illegal lab on I Street. Intense media attention has grown following original reporting of the lab two weeks ago.
From what has been discovered thus far, Prestige Biotech, Inc. was storing infectious agents and other biologicals in an abandoned building at their 850 I Street location. In an interview with ABC30, Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba defended her decision not to immediately inform the public that potentially dangerous chemicals and biologicals were in the lab.
“I know there are people who are unhappy with me,” Zieba said in the ABC30 interview. “I stand by the decisions I made because I made them with the best information I had at the time, and I know that our community is safe. To me as a public servant, that is what’s most critical.”
TIPPING YOUR HAND, WHICH FEDS DO NOT ALLOW
In an Aug. 7 interview with the Times, Zieba said in the months following the discovery of the blood, the tissue samples, the infectious agents, the lab mice, the freezers and the thousands of vials of unmarked liquids, she had conversations with Joe Prado of the Fresno County Department of Public Health (FCDPH) about when and what to tell the public. Any moral ambiguity regarding disclosure was quickly resolved by the FBI, which instituted the gag order.
“It’s not very wise to defy federal authorities,” said Zieba. “For me as a city manager, I’d rather not spend time in a federal prison.” She added, “When the state and federal government says, ‘Do not give out this information to the public,’ I’m going to follow that direction.”
NOT DISSIMILAR TO A METH LAB
Zieba said she is at a loss regarding Fresno City Councilmember Garry Bredefeld’s comments regarding what the public should have been told and when.
“He went on national television and said, ‘This is a Chinese biolab that is manipulating viruses to prey upon the American public’,” Zeiba said. “And in the next breath says, ‘We should have gone to the public right away with this.’ If it had been that sort of a lab, why in the world would we tell the Chinese government? They’re laughing at us as it is now.”
In a previous interview with the Times, Bredefeld said: “The public has a right to know and the fact that the (Fresno) board of supervisors did not hold a press conference and inform the public is disgraceful.”
Zeiba compared the investigation to investigating a meth lab.
“If we think there’s a meth lab operating in your neighborhood, we don’t go up to the neighbors and say, ‘We think there’s a meth lab here.’ We go undercover, we sit on that house, we surveil it,” she said. “We get the information, and then we get the bad guys.”
GO PUBLIC, GO HOME
Zieba said another reason why the authorities did not go public sooner was because of the damage that publicity posed for the investigations, which are still ongoing.
“We knew that as soon as it came out in public, the conversations we were having with Prestige Biotech? We knew those conversations would stop,” Zieba said. “Those conversations have ceased, those players are gone, we don’t know where they are.”
She added, “I don’t think it would have been wise for the long-term investigations.”
Zieba said she and others involved in the investigation elected to go public now because they had to get out in front of all the inaccurate reports and misinformation being disseminated on social media and through conventional news channels.
“We needed to dispel those myths,” she said. “But as much as we can, we are trying to get information out to the public.”
WHAT ABOUT MY RIGHT TO KNOW AS A CITIZEN?
When asked does not the public have the right to know what is happening in its backyard, particularly when that backyard is full of infectious agents, Zieba said that once investigators determined the public was not at any risk, it was paramount that nothing derail the investigations; even if that meant incurring the public’s disdain.
“These investigations are still ongoing and are complex and comprehensive,” Zieba said. “I believe the public is astute enough to understand that the more information that gets out to the public, the more the bad guys also know what we know. I think the public recognizes that.”
DAVID WHO TOOK DOWN GOLIATH WITH A GARDEN HOSE
Zieba said she is upset that politicians are trying to make a name for themselves by criticizing the handling of the investigation. The bigger problem is the federal government and the fact there are no proscriptions preventing companies from doing what Prestige did.
“This company was already a bad player,” said Zieba. “They got kicked out of Canada. They got kicked out of Texas. They go to California, they get kicked out of Fresno. They get kicked out of Tulare, they go back to Fresno. Get kicked out of Fresno and end up in Reedley.”
Zieba continued, “We’re the little David city that took down Goliath with a garden hose. We dismantled an entity that everyone else kicked down the road to someone else’s town. I don’t kick cans down the road.”
The discovery of the lab launched an investigation that eventually involved multiple local, state and federal agencies, including the CDC, the FDA, the IRS, the FBI, the State Department of Health and the California Department of Public Health.
Reedley filed 17 documents relating to the investigation with Fresno Superior Court, including warrants, declarations from city officials in support of warrants, warrants to inspect a public nuisance, and abatement warrants. FCDPH also filed multiple documents with the court. These documents totaled over 300 pages.