Trump administration examined political opinions of 274 celebrities for Covid’s $ 265 million ad campaign, House panel says

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Interpreter Marc Anthony wanted the Trump administration to agree – in writing – that it would not use its comments for a public service campaign on the coronavirus to be used for the re-election of President Donald Trump.

Actor Dennis Quaid and singers CeCe Winans and Shulem Lemmer recorded their PSAs before withdrawing their consent to participate.

Rapper Ludacris, actress Betty White, Britney Spears, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, among others, have all turned them down.

The Department of Health and Human Services paid a contractor to screen 274 celebrities for their opinions on everything from gay marriage to abortion rights as part of a $ 265 million public service campaign on the coronavirus House Democrats said in a new letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

The ad campaign was designed to advance Trump’s “partisan political agenda” ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election and may have violated federal contracting law, according to the joint investigation by three key House committees. Recently released documents and emails between an HHS contractor and agency officials shed light on the extent to which political interference has shaped the public health campaign.

The investigation found that Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official who was appointed this summer to ensure HHS ‘coronavirus strategy was in line with that of the White House, was seeking to intervene directly in communications between subcontractors and agency employees. Work on the project continued even after HHS announced that Caputo was taking a 60-day leave.

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Representative Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the Oversight and Reform Committee; Representative James Clyburn, who heads the special subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis and Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, who heads the economic and consumer policy subcommittee, released some of the documents with the letter on Thursday.

The “PSA Celebrity Tracker” used by HHS details the political views of more than 200 celebrities considered for the campaign, according to an internal HHS document dated Oct. 23 that was produced by entrepreneur Atlas Research.

The document lists the political leanings of various artists, their arrests history, alcohol or drug problems, sexual misconduct or sex tape as well as the segment of the population to which they appealed.

Singer Adam Levine is a “liberal Democrat who supported Obama and fights for gay rights,” but he appealed to the general population as well as “super broadcasters.” Also popular with “super spreaders,” singer Lady Gaga has “not specifically claimed any political side,” although she officially supported Hillary in 2016, according to the list. Actor and singer Neil Patrick Harris was popular among the LGBTQ community as well as the general population. He also “played at the Republican National Convention in 2016,” the document notes, “but appears to be a liberal Democrat.”

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Of actor Danny Devito, the document pointedly reads, “Democrats, hate Republicans.” And actor Jack Black is “known to be a classic Hollywood liberal,” according to the document.

Another Atlas document, dated September 29, includes notes of a meeting with HHS officials where they said PSA with comedian George Lopez “was not moving forward due to previous concerns regarding his comments regarding the president. “

“Spokespersons for public service campaigns should be chosen based on their ability to reach the target audience, not their political affiliation,” House Democrats said in their letter to Azar. “Still, documents produced by the contractors indicate that the Trump administration has screened spokespersons based on their political positions and their support for President Trump.”

Politico first reported on the documents.

The ad campaign is being implemented through at least two contracts, the committee said: a $ 250 million contract awarded to communications firm Fors Marsh and a $ 15 million contract awarded to communications firm. Washington-based Atlas Research consultancy. Most of the documents obtained by the Chamber panel were produced by Atlas.

Representatives for Atlas did not immediately return TBEN’s request for comment.

Ben Garthwaite, CEO of Fors Marsh, said via email that his company had not been involved in celebrity control and that “we have never met Mr. Caputo or had any contact with HHS officials named by Trump “.

An HHS spokeswoman said a “review is underway” of the campaign.

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“The plan has always been to only use materials reviewed by a department-wide team of experts, including scientists from the CDC, who will ensure that the latest scientific information is used to provide important information. on public health, therapy and vaccines, ”said the spokesperson for the PR effort.

Lawmakers have released emails showing Caputo seeking to interfere in official communications between contractors and career HHS employees, asking Atlas representatives to rush production of content for the campaign with celebrities like Ludacris and Trump supporting actor Antonio Sabato.

“We need to film them ASAP – we need the content in the box now,” Caputo wrote to Atlas employees on September 13, the same day Caputo posted a video on his Facebook page accusing CDC scientists of sedition.

In response to Caputo’s email, a Food and Drug Administration contract agent removed Caputo from the email chain and praised the contractors for “doing an outstanding job in a complex environment.” The official, April Brubach, told contractors that only authorized personnel can “provide concrete guidance.”

HHS has encouraged at least one contractor to outsource with DD&T, a company run by long-time Caputo business partner Den Tolmor, according to documents released Thursday.

“This raises serious questions as to whether there has been a violation of federal conflict of interest contracts law,” lawmakers wrote in their letter to Azar.

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