Democrats say HHS stonewalling probe into Verma’s PR contracts

Dec 17, 2019
In The News

Four senior Democratic lawmakers said HHS must turn over more documents about Medicare and Medicaid chief Seema Verma's extensive use of public relations consultants, claiming the department has largely been uncooperative with their investigation.

The lawmakers said information so far provided by the health department has prompted new questions about Verma’s role in shaping communications contracts, including some that helped burnish her personal brand.

"HHS has not fully cooperated with our investigation," the Democrats wrote to the health department on Tuesday in a letter first shared with POLITICO. "The documents that have been produced to date raise concerns that HHS is holding back significant amounts of relevant information."

Verma’s steering of millions of dollars in taxpayer contracts to GOP-connected communications consultants was first reported by POLITICO in March. Ethics experts and career staffers in the agency Verma runs, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, have questioned the appropriateness of the contracts, and the revelation of their existence furthered the rift between Verma and HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Democratic lawmakers and the health department’s internal watchdog have been probing the contracts since the spring.

Senior Democrats on Tuesday’s letter — House Energy and Committee Chair Frank Pallone (N.J.) and House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), as well as Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking members of the Senate Finance and HELP committees, respectively — said their months long probe has languished because HHS has not provided key documents from Verma and her team.

Health department officials insisted they are complying with Democrats' requests.

"The department takes all congressional inquiries very seriously and will respond in a timely fashion," said a HHS spokesperson.

The Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday also released emails that HHS sent last month to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is helping lead the Hill probe of the contracts.

One email from July 23, 2018, shows Verma aide Brady Brookes discussing the scope of a $2.25 million strategic communications contract with a CMS communications staffer.

"The goal of the new contract action will be to find media opportunities and book media action for the administrator," wrote Brookes, who is now Verma’s chief of staff.

Democrats said the email appears to show that Verma's office was directly involved in efforts to raise her profile. Verma's office has maintained that any efforts to boost her profile, such as an "executive visibility" plan crafted by a contractor, were the work of outside consultants and viewed only as suggestions within the agency.

A spokesperson for CMS defended the email, saying it was part of a broader strategy to promote the agency's message and build relationships with new media outlets.

"Booking media for the Administrator was specifically to talk about CMS, its programs, and healthcare writ-large," the spokesperson said.

In other emails released Tuesday, Brookes and CMS staff deliberated over which subcontractors would be conducting work through the strategic communications contract.

That contract took effect in September 2018, and it was halted in April, days after POLITICO first reported on it.

Subsequent reports found Trump administration allies received hundreds of thousands of dollars under the contracts, and one contractor proposed a publicity plan to land Verma in magazines like Glamour.