WASHINGTON (CN) — Getting around White House roadblocks, House Democrats say their investigation of a nearly $300 million effort to tout America’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic found improper politicking, including a blacklist of celebrities considered opponents of President Trump.
The Department of Health and Human Services considered 274 marquee names for the still-unfinished public service announcement, according to documents released Thursday by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis as well as the committees on Oversight and Reform and Economic and Consumer Policy.
But after excluding people like Christina Aguilera because, as one contractor put it, she “is an Obama-supporting Democrat and a gay-rights supporting liberal,” the administration felt it had only 10 options for the PSA.
The actor Dennis Quaid was one of three people who ultimately sat for an interview, only to refuse to participate. Apparently, the singer Marc Anthony was dropped out of the running when he “sought an amendment to his contract to ensure that his content would not be used for advertisements to re-elect President Trump.”
House leaders say the documents suggest that HHS exploited a public health effort to mount a political propaganda campaign, all on the taxpayers’ dime.
“Of course, it is completely inappropriate to frame a taxpayer-funded ad campaign around ‘helping’ President Trump in the weeks and days before the election,” the committees said in a 17-page letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “This theme also ignores the reality that more than 220,000 Americans have died from coronavirus — a fact that should not be whitewashed in a legitimate public health message."
Azar put the campaign on hold earlier this month. Ignoring the committees’ request for any documents about the boondoggle, the secretary told the Oversight subcommittee that the matter was being investigated internally.
Finding that stance inadequate, Thursday’s letter gives Azar a deadline of Nov. 10 to produce everything the committees asked for back in September, as well as more materials related to what has been uncovered so far.
In a statement responding to the letter, a representative for HHS characterized the agency’s line of communication with Congress as an “open” one.
“The plan has always been to only use materials reviewed by a department-wide team of experts including scientists from CDC who will ensure the latest scientific information is used to provide important public health, therapeutic and vaccine information,” the statement asserts.
The committees first wrote to Azar when HHS awarded the Fors Marsh Group a contract for the campaign valued at more than $250 million. Another marketing firm, Atlas Research, was later given a $15 million contract.
Apart from star tracking, Thursday’s report slams Michael Caputo, the HHS assistant secretary of public affairs, for working partisan political interests into the campaign.
In a meeting just last month with Atlas executives, “Caputo proposed ... that one of the themes of the ad campaign should be: ‘Helping the President will Help the Country.’”
Politico quoted Caputo as saying the campaign was “demanded of me by the president of the United States. Personally.”
Thursday’s report calls it concerning that he steered subcontracts toward DD&T Group, Grapeseed Media and Co/efficient, before taking a medical leave of absence this month for a cancer diagnosis.
The president of Atlas listed apparent conflicts of interest in a report on his due diligence, noting that DD&T is owned by a Russian-born business associate of Caputo’s, while Co/efficient is “run by a state-level Republican pollster.”
Atlas’ notes quote Caputo as saying the ads should rival Rosie the Riveter propaganda, referring to the campaign aimed at recruiting women to work in defense industries during World War II.
The marketing firm also shared the "PSA Celebrity Tracker" it compiled at the government’s request. This 34-page document shows that celebrities like George Lopez and Margaret Cho were secretly scrutinized for anti-Trump sentiments.
Zach Galifianakis “refused to host President Trump on talk show,” investigators found, and Billie Eilish has criticized the president for “destroying our country and everything we care about.”
Reminding Azar that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, Thursday’s letter questions why celebrities like Justin Timberlake were classified as “liberal left” for supporting gay rights.
“Spokespeople for public service campaigns should be chosen on their ability to reach the target audience, not their political affiliation,” the letter barks.
Back in September, Quaid posted a video on Instagram where he slammed the media for accusing him of taking CDC money to make a pro-Trump spot.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Quaid said, emphasizing that his interview involved the nation's top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, talking "about the importance of wearing a mask, about social distancing, and it was in no way political."
The actor titled his post "No good deed goes unpoliticized" and encouraged fans to hear his full interview with Dr. Fauci on his podcast, "The Dennisance."
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