Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a media briefing at the White House on Aug. 23.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a media briefing at the White House on Aug. 23. Alex Brandon / AP

Lawmakers Question HHS’ $250 Million Contract for Coronavirus Communications 

Democrats are concerned the Trump administration is using taxpayer funds for "political propaganda" ahead of the election. 

Top House lawmakers are probing the Trump administration’s recent $250 million communications contract to “inspire hope” during the coronavirus pandemic, due to concerns of political interference. 

The Democrats sent letters to Health and Human Services Department Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday and Friday regarding a bid last month for a communications firm to “defeat despair and inspire hope” amid the pandemic and the nation’s economic rebound. The majority of the money would be spent between now and January and HHS wants to target businesses, workplaces, colleges and schools, faith organizations, law enforcement and child care groups with the message campaign, Politico reported on August 31. Last week, HHS awarded the contract to Fors Marsh Group, a market and consumer research and strategy firm. 

“We have grave concerns that, rather than focus[ing] on planning and executing a national strategy to contain the coronavirus, the Trump administration is using a quarter of a billion dollars in taxpayer money to fund what appears to be a political propaganda campaign just two months before a presidential election,” said the chairs of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, and Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee on Thursday. “The public relations firm hired by HHS will report to Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, who is a former campaign operative for President Trump and not a public health professional.” 

They asked the department to suspend the contract while officials demonstrate the firm will only be used to disseminate public health information based on science. The lawmakers listed previous examples of the administration using “political spin” during the pandemic, such as the Food and Drug Administration's initial mishap in explaining the data used in granting blood plasma treatment emergency authorization; internal emails that show a top HHS aide was trying to dictate what Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House coronavirus task force member, says to the press; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changing testing guidance after reportedly being pressured by the White House to do so. 

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, expressed similar concerns in a letter on Friday.

“Federal agencies may use outside communications firms to promote agency and program initiatives,” he wrote. However, “senior health officials in the Trump administration have relied heavily on private communications consultants, including consultants with strong partisan political ties.” Pallone cited a report released on Thursday by House and Senate Democrats that said Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma misused millions of dollars of taxpayer funds to pay Republican-aligned communications firms. 

The inquiries, collectively, asked the department to provide information on the contracting process, all bids received, funding sources for Fors Marsh Group and other public relations initiatives, current and future marketing and social media campaigns related to the pandemic, and an explanation of how HHS will avoid political interference in the messaging campaign. The committees set September 24 and September 25 deadlines. 

Fors Marsh CEO Ben Garthwaite told PR Week on Sept. 1 they “proposed an evidence-based approach built upon principles of behavioral and social science.” HHS did not respond for comment.

“Because of political disinformation from officials like Democrats’ Vice Presidential nominee Senator [Kamala] Harris, Americans are increasingly skeptical of taking the vaccine,” which “scientists are working around the clock to develop,” a Republican House Energy and Commerce aide told Government Executive in response to the letters. “No elected official should care more about power than saving lives and getting our country back to normal, but it’s no wonder HHS would seek additional help getting their message to the American people.”