A top Trump administration health official violated federal contracting rules by steering millions of taxpayer dollars in contracts that ultimately benefited GOP-aligned communications consultants, according to an inspector general report set to be released today.
The contracts, which were directed by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services chief Seema Verma, were only halted after a POLITICO investigation raised questions about their legality and the agency had paid out more than $5 million to the contractors.
The 70-page HHS inspector general report — the result of a 15-month audit — calls on HHS and CMS to take nine separate actions to address the "significant deficiencies" that it identified. Those actions include conducting a review of all the department's contracts, and making a closer examination of whether CMS overpaid several of its contractors.
The report paints a detailed portrait of Verma's use of federal contracts to install allies who managed high-priority projects and exercised broad authority within CMS, while circumventing the agency's career officials and funding projects that ethics experts have said wasted taxpayers’ money.
“CMS improperly administered the contracts and created improper employer-employee relationships between CMS and the contractors,” the inspector general wrote, detailing how Verma leaned on her hand-picked consultants rather than hundreds of civil servants in her communications department. “CMS’s administration of these contracts put the Government at increased risk for waste and abuse.”
For instance, the report cites numerous examples across her first two years leading CMS of Verma personally directing contractors to craft her speeches and remarks, working with them to secure media appearances and even accompanying one for a “Girl’s Night Out” networking event. While the inspector general uses pseudonyms to describe individual contractors, POLITICO has previously identified the individuals cited in the report.
Verma — a close ally of Vice President Mike Pence — has emerged as a key leader of the White House coronavirus task force, overseeing billions of dollars in emergency payments to doctors and hospitals, rolling out new rules affecting nursing homes and championing the use of telemedicine. She also runs the nation's largest health care safety-net programs — Medicare and Medicaid — in addition to overseeing Obamacare, as head of a trillion-dollar agency with sweeping regulatory authority over the U.S. health care system.
Verma has spent more than a year defending the contracts, testifying to Congress that they were “consistent” with previous communications arrangements and focused on promoting the agency, not her.
However, the inspector general concluded that Verma and her team “did not administer and manage the contracts in accordance with Federal requirements.” The watchdog also faulted the health department for failing to adequately manage the contracts, which auditors linked to potential duplicate spending and other “questionable costs,” such as a $150,000 payout for a canceled bus tour.
At other times, Verma’s hand-picked contractors — including her former communications specialist, Marcus Barlow, who had worked as a spokesperson on behalf of Verma’s consulting firm but had been blocked from taking a job at CMS — personally steered federal staff and policies in ways that appeared to flout contracting rules, according to the inspector general.
Keep in mind being in charge of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act, Verma controls more than a trillion dollars in federal funds every year. So yeah, looking at her books a bit more closely is probably a good idea.
I like how she (so far) has avoided the obvious Medicare fraud angle which being watched more closely would have gotten her busted years ago and instead paid off GOP PR firms through the department's communications budget, that's pretty clever. Verma's clearly been at this game long enough to rip off Indiana taxpayers when working for Pence and figured she'd use the same tricks at the federal level.
That of course brings up two questions, one, who else is she paying off to when it comes to the big healthcare money, and two, what was Verma getting in return for these communications contracts?
My initial answers are "Whomever Pence told her to" and "She expected favors from these firms after leaving the Trump regime and going back to her consulting business".
Should be fun to find out.