HHS Grilled Over $250M Coronavirus Publicity Campaign

By Kevin Stawicki
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Law360 (September 11, 2020, 4:59 PM EDT) -- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services must turn over information about whether it secured a $250 million contract for publicity consultants to deceive the public about the Trump administration's "failed response" to the coronavirus pandemic, a Democratic congressman said Friday.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., asked HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a letter to turn over details about a performance work statement that a media report said was bidding out a $250 million contract to hire communications consultants to release public service announcements promoting a rosy picture about the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The committee is concerned that HHS may use more than a quarter-billion dollars in taxpayer funds on private communications consultants charged with distorting the facts and misleading the public about the Trump administration's failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic," Pallone said in the letter.

The letter referenced media reports that the performance work statement sent out by HHS included goals to "defeat despair and inspire hope" about the pandemic, and that the contract would cost over $250 million to be spent by January 2021, well after the presidential election.

"I am deeply concerned that HHS is pursuing a dishonest COVID-19 messaging campaign designed primarily to benefit President Trump's reelection prospects," Pallone said in a statement.

Pallone, the only signator of the letter, said the potential that HHS sought to secure the contract wouldn't be an unusual development for the administration that has politicized public health institutions during the pandemic and faced investigations for improper use of federal funds.

"The White House has brazenly interfered in public health agencies' search for safe and effective COVID-19 treatments and vaccines — sidelining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, undermining its public health guidance, and denigrating the administration's own public health experts," the letter said.

On Thursday, a report by congressional Democrats accused Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma of misusing federal funds to rack up $6 million in expenses for consultants to craft her "personal brand" and work as a "shadow operation" to sidestep agency staff.

That report came just months after the HHS Office of Inspector General said Verma broke federal contracting rules by allowing a subcontractor to perform "inherently governmental" work.

Former HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned in 2017 amid revelations that he racked up $400,000 in taxpayer-funded travel on private jets.

Representatives for HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

--Additional reporting by Jeff Overley and Daniel Wilson. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

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