Dems Float Bill To Block $250M HHS COVID-19 Ad Campaign

By Daniel Wilson
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Law360 (October 7, 2020, 9:05 PM EDT) -- A group of senior House Democrats has introduced legislation to block the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from spending federal funds on contentious advertisements related to the COVID-19 pandemic, calling the pending HHS campaign "propaganda."

The Defeat Pandemic Propaganda Act will prohibit the HHS from spending any of its funding on creating "campaign-style, political advertisements" related to the coronavirus ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election, House Oversight Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee Chairman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said on Wednesday.

"With more than 200,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and no end to the pandemic in sight, federally-funded advertisements meant to cast the situation in a positive light or suggest there is no longer a need to take public health precautions would be wholly unethical, especially in the weeks before a presidential election," Krishnamoorthi said in a statement.

Specifically, the bill would bar the HHS from obligating any public money to a public service announcement or advertising campaign that is intended to "positively influence public perception" or misrepresent facts related to the pandemic, or to encourage activities that would lead to an "undue risk" of contracting the coronavirus.

A representative for the HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.

The bill, introduced on Tuesday, notes in its preamble that it is a response to the HHS reportedly signing a roughly $250 million deal with market research firm Fors Marsh Group LLC on Aug. 31 to run a campaign intended in part to ''defeat despair and inspire hope, sharing best practices for businesses to operate in the new normal and instill confidence to return to work and restart the economy" amid COVID-19.

By promoting a positive outlook on a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans, that campaign would be an unethical use of federal funds and could encourage people to defy recommendations from public health authorities, according to the bill.

Also, using HHS funds on a "misleading propaganda campaign" would violate the agency's mission, DeLauro said.

Additionally, the taxpayer-funded campaign could benefit President Donald Trump at the polls, said Krishnamoorthi and DeLauro, whose bill is also backed by Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Chairman Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

Clyburn, Krishnamoorthi and Maloney had previously called on HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Fors Marsh to suspend the advertising deal in September, and to cough up related documents to be investigated by their committees.

Then on Oct. 1 they asked for documents from other companies reportedly tapped to aid the campaign through a related $15 million contract, Atlas Research LLC and its subcontractor DD&T Group LLC, a company run by a former business partner to HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo.

Caputo had reportedly spearheaded the campaign at the behest of Trump, before recently taking medical leave following a widely publicized series of social media posts where he alleged career government officials were plotting against the Trump administration, the lawmakers noted.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., has also sought to investigate the contentious contract. In a Sept. 11 letter to Azar, Pallone expressed concern not only that the proposed campaign may be intended primarily to aid Trump's reelection prospects, but that it was part of a broader pattern of HHS leaders misusing communications contracts.

--Additional reporting by Kevin Stawicki. Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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