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Planned US $250M COVID-19 ad campaign rejected celebrities critical of Trump

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Michael Caputo, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sought to use celebrities who support President Donald Trump in a $250 million public relations campaign to ease Americans' concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

The funds targeted for the COVID-19 public relations campaign were taken from money allotted by Congress to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency's director, Robert Redfield, confirmed for lawmakers at a Sept. 16 hearing.

Documents obtained by the House Oversight and Reform Committee revealed that the public service campaign run by HHS showed the administration had vetted 274 celebrities to appear in ads about COVID-19. Ten of those people were selected.

Three of the celebrities — actor Dennis Quaid and singers CeCe Winans and Shulem Lemmer — sat for taped interviews but later dropped out of the project, stating their participation was intended to be nonpolitical and to only promote public health.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers at an Oct. 2 hearing that the campaign had been put on hold while the agency conducted a review to ensure it met its public health and educational goals.

An HHS spokesperson told S&P Global Market Intelligence that review remains ongoing.

In an Oct. 28 letter to Azar, the Democratic leaders of the House Oversight and Reform Committee noted they had previously expressed concerns that Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS, was trying to use the COVID-19 campaign as a "vehicle for taxpayer-funded political propaganda."

"We now know that Mr. Caputo attempted to do exactly that," Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and two subcommittee heads told Azar.

Caputo has been on a medical leave of absence since mid-September.

The House committee leaders obtained an outline put together by Atlas Research LLC, which was awarded a $15 million contract from HHS, that included certain details about the high-profile Americans under consideration for the ad campaign, like whether they had ever been arrested, their country of birth, their religious affiliations, and if they supported issues opposed by the Trump administration.

The table compiled by Atlas pointed out people who had endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, as well as endorsements in the two prior presidential elections.

It also noted whether people on the list supported former President Barack Obama and his political positions.

In addition, the list highlighted the demographic groups the celebrities could reach if they were used in the Trump administration ads, such as Black or Hispanic Americans, and if they could be considered a "superspreader" of information.

The documents obtained by the committee showed a number of celebrities, including comedian George Lopez, were excluded from participating in the campaign because of critical statements they had made about Trump.

Conflicts of interest

The House committee leaders said their investigation revealed that the Trump administration had urged Atlas Research to subcontract with DD&T, a company run by Caputo's long-time business associate Den Tolmor.

"This raises serious questions about whether there has been a violation of federal contracting law related to conflicts of interest," the lawmakers wrote.

Caputo had told the head of a group of Santa Claus performers that they could be moved up on the priority list of receiving COVID-19 vaccines once the shots are cleared for the U.S. market if they participated in the HHS ad campaign. The agency later nixed that idea, according to an Oct. 25 report in the Wall Street Journal.

After Caputo had tried to influence the educational content of the campaign ads, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration contract officer removed the HHS chief spokesman from an email chain with contractors, the House leaders said.

"It is critical that HHS provide accurate, nonpolitical public health information to the American people that encourages mask wearing, social distancing and other science-backed public health recommendations," Maloney told Azar in their Oct. 28 letter. "Yet, the documents we have obtained indicate that HHS political appointees sought to use taxpayer dollars to advance a partisan political agenda and direct taxpayer money to their friends and allies."

The lawmakers called on Azar to turn over certain documents about the COVID-19 campaign they had requested in September.

The HHS spokesperson said the agency's 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."