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House Democrats seek information on $250 million contract on coronavirus PR campaign

The contract, which was advertised over the summer to help the administration “defeat despair and inspire hope” surrounding coronavirus, according to the performance work document sent to communication firms and first reported by Politico in August, is valued at a quarter of a billion dollars.

The House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, Jim Clyburn, the chairman of the select committee on coronavirus and Raja Krishnamoorthi, a subcommittee chairman, sent letters to both Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Ben Garthwaite, the chief executive officer for Fors Marsh Group, the market research firm that ultimately got the contract.

“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,” House Democrats wrote in their letters.

Democrats also wrote “to address the despair many Americans are experiencing during this pandemic, the Administration needs to 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 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,” the letters say.

Fors Marsh Group acknowledged receipt of the letter Friday morning.

“We are reviewing and will certainly respond and cooperate with all parties in doing so,” Fors Marsh Group CEO Ben Garthwaite said in a statement.

A public health communication specialist for the US Department of Health and Human Services said the public service announcements will hit several themes. Some, for example, will emphasize “the three W’s” — wearing a mask, watching distance (social distancing) and washing hands. Others will educate about vaccines against the flu and Covid-19.

Mark Weber is leading the Covid-19 campaign. He’s worked for HHS for 31 years and has developed public health campaigns under five presidential administrations.

“I’m all about public health, not politics,” he said.

Weber noted the questions being asked about how the contract was awarded.

“It was competed, and those proposals were reviewed by career federal officials, not political appointees, who made the recommendation, and the organization that came in with the best proposal won,” he said.

Some of the announcements have already started airing, such as those encouraging donation of convalescent plasma by people who’ve recovered from Covid-19, which went out about a month ago on outdoor and digital advertising in 18 markets that have been hit especially hard by the virus.

The campaign is also spending about $650,000 to place announcements aimed at encouraging Black people and Latinos to participate in clinical trials for Covid-19 vaccines. Those spots, which were developed by a team hired by the National Institutes of Health, have already started airing.

HHS is currently developing announcements that will pair public health experts with actors, musicians and athletes to educate people about Covid-19.

The plan is that the experts will include physicians Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration; Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams; Rear Adm. Dr. Erica Schwartz, deputy surgeon general; as well as Alex Azar, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services; Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; and Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, director of the Indian Health Service.

The letters come just days after a new audio recordings between President Donald Trump and journalist Bob Woodward revealed the President purposefully downplayed the severity of the coronavirus back in March.

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, even as he had declared a national emergency over the virus days earlier. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

It’s not unprecedented for an administration to use a marketing or public relations firm to help craft a message or conduct research about public health. Fors Marsh lists on its websites several previous campaigns it worked on with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Food and Drug Administration on issues related to childhood asthma and rural health habits. And when former President Barack Obama was trying to educate and sell Americans on the Affordable Care Act, the administration spent millions on advertising to get people to sign up.

Still, House Democrats are requesting that the contract between Health and Human Services and Fors Marsh be suspended until they receive documents including the “complete and unredacted” contract “and all documents and communications referring or relating to the contract award process.” Democrats also want to receive assurances that no ad campaign will include overtly political messages.

The committee is also asking for a staff briefing by September 28.

This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.

CNN’s Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.


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