Politico

House Democrats probing $250M coronavirus messaging contract


Senior House Democrats have launched an investigation into the Trump administration’s awarding of a $250 million communications contract to help “defeat despair and inspire hope” over the coronavirus pandemic, as they questioned the political motivations behind the taxpayer-funded messaging campaign.

The lawmakers are also calling on the administration to halt the contract while it’s under investigation, according to a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that was shared with POLITICO.

“We have grave concerns that, rather than focus 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,” wrote Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who all lead congressional oversight panels.

The contract announcement, whose existence was first reported by POLITICO last week, says the administration aims to “install confidence to return to work and restart the economy,” while most of the funding would be steered toward public service announcements on public health, therapeutics and vaccines. The work would largely be completed by the end of January, according to the announcement.

Democratic lawmakers argued the contract is the latest evidence of the Trump administration downplaying the risks of a virus that’s killed 190,000 people in the United States and will pose a threat to public health for months to come. The administration must “be honest about the risks Americans face and promote science-based solutions—not political spin—to finally contain the virus and prevent more unnecessary infections and deaths,” the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers also raised concerns that the contract will be overseen by Michael Caputo, a longtime GOP operative and former Trump campaign staffer who was installed as HHS’ top communications official this spring. Watchdogs have questioned Caputo’s role in shaping communications during the pandemic, and POLITICO reported this week an adviser to Caputo sought to prevent infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci from speaking on the risks of coronavirus to children. Caputo, the Democrats’ letter notes, is “not a public health professional.”

The contract was awarded on Sept. 1 to Fors Marsh Group, a small Arlington, Va.-based market research firm that’s previously done work for federal health agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the group’s website. Fors Marsh and HHS met on Thursday for the first time to get started on the contract.

HHS spokesperson Mark Weber confirmed that the department had received the Democrats’ letter and will respond.

The contract, which HHS said went through a competitive bidding process, is intended to create public service announcements “designed to help Americans make informed decisions about the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and flu,” Weber said in a statement.

The size and the timing of the contract alarmed former Obama-era HHS officials, who oversaw an even larger messaging campaign around the launch of HealthCare.gov, the Obamacare enrollment website. Some of them questioned why such a large effort was launched shortly before the election and not in the earlier days of the pandemic, when a broad public awareness campaign could have helped reinforce public health measures and instill confidence in an eventual vaccine that can bring an end to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, polls show weak public confidence in coronavirus vaccines that are being developed at record speed. More than six in 10 Americans are worried that political pressure will lead the FDA to rush a coronavirus vaccine, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released this week, and only 42 percent said they would get a coronavirus vaccine if it was available before the election as Trump has repeatedly suggested.

In their letter to Azar, the Democratic lawmakers demanded HHS by Sept. 24 provide them the contract awarded to Fors Marsh, any documents and communications related to the award process, and an explanation of where the funding came from. They’ve also asked the department to explain what measures it’s taking to ensure the messaging isn’t political.

The lawmakers in another letter to Fors Marsh asked the company to turn over documents and communications related to the HHS contract, including other subcontractors and company employees working on the messaging campaign. “We are reviewing and will certainly respond and cooperate with all parties in doing so,” said Fors Marsh CEO Ben Garthwaite.

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