WASHINGTON, DC – Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Chairman James E. Clyburn, and Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee Chairman Raja Krishnamoorthi issued a joint statement on November 18 following a decision by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to cancel a $15 million communications contract with Atlas Research LLC designed to “defeat despair” and “inspire hope” during the pandemic.
“Our investigation revealed that, rather than taking the steps needed to control the coronavirus crisis, the Trump Administration attempted to spend precious taxpayer dollars and recruit celebrities in a thinly-veiled propaganda campaign to try to help President Trump politically,” stated the Chairs. “We are pleased that following our investigation, HHS finally pulled the plug on this corrupt scheme and committed to moving forward with a ‘new approach’ for educating the American people about the pandemic based on rigorous science and public health principles. Accurate, reliable information must be a critical part of the federal government’s coronavirus response and should not be tainted by inappropriate political messaging.”
On September 10, 2020, the Chairs wrote to HHS seeking documents about a massive $250 million public advertising contract with the Fors Marsh Group. On October 1, 2020, the Chairs sought additional documents from contractors on a $15 million “immediate surge” communications contract awarded to Atlas Research LLC.
On October 2, 2020, HHS Secretary Alex Azar testified before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that HHS had begun a “strategic review” of HHS’s public advertising campaign to “determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes.”
On October 28, 2020, the Chairs sent a letter to Secretary Azar releasing new documents obtained from the contractors showing that Trump Administration official Michael Caputo, through HHS’s communications contracts, was planning to use celebrities to advance inappropriate partisan political messaging intended to help the President’s re-election campaign.
In response, HHS sent a letter to the Chairs on November 13, 2020, stating:
- “Based on media reports as well as questions from and concerns expressed by members of Congress, Secretary Azar testified on October 2, 2020, that he had ‘ordered a strategic review of this public health education campaign that will be led by top public health and communications experts to determine whether the campaign services important public health purposes.’”
- “A new approach for the campaign was proposed and discussed. The new approach would create a dynamic relationship with public health infrastructure, build on established messaging, and develop a comprehensive, consistent, coordinated, and science-based public education campaign with rigorous evaluation and regular impact reporting to inform decision making.”
- “Based on the feedback provided, [the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs] plans to move forward with the science-based approach for public education put forward by the Fors Marsh Group.”
- “The work with members of the entertainment industry conducted by Atlas Research will not continue and that contract will be canceled.”