Oct. 30 (UPI) — The Trump administration paid a contractor to vet hundreds of celebrities for a scrapped $265 million ad campaign about the COVID-19 pandemic, House Democrats said Thursday.
The House committee on oversight and reform issued a statement saying it had sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar seeking documents regarding the agency’s contracting of a company to vet 274 celebrities to participate in the public service announcement to “defeat despair and inspire hope” amid the pandemic.
Criteria for the ad included previous arrests, prior support for LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage and whether they had disagreed with President Donald Trump in the past.
The PSA campaign also sought to include holiday actors, including professional Santas, and those playing Mrs. Claus and elves, who were offered a chance to get an early COVID-19 vaccine if it became available.
“It is critical that HHS provide accurately nonpolitical public health information to the American people that encourages mask wearing, social distancing and other science-backed public health recommendations,” wrote oversight and reform committee, Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, along with subcommittee heads James Clyburn and Raja Krishnamoorthi. “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 committee said that HHS assistant secretary of public affairs, Michael Caputo sought to influence the PSA for “partisan political purposes” by intervening directly in communications between agency contractors and employees.
It added that contractor employees and career staff at the Food and Drug Administration “pushed back on these inappropriate efforts.”
The documents also showed that as of Oct. 1, all of the celebrities who agreed to participate in the ad campaign had withdrawn their consent to do so.
“Your failure to provide the documents we requested — especially in light of the information we have learned from the contractors — appears to be part of a cover-up to conceal the Trump Administration’s misuse of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for partisan political purposes ahead of the upcoming election and to direct taxpayer funds to friends and allies of Trump administration officials,” the chairs added.