Well now is just a great time for a key member of the Trump administration's Health and Human Services (HHS) team to be under a big corruption shadow. The HHS inspector general has found that Seema Verma, who is in charge of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), used her position to steer millions of dollars in federal contracts to friends. More than $5 million in taxpayer money went to communications consultants apparently hired to burnish Verma's image, who circumvented civil servants in the CMS communications department
"CMS improperly administered the contracts and created improper employer-employee relationships between CMS and the contractors," the inspector general wrote. "CMS's administration of these contracts put the Government at increased risk for waste and abuse." In her first two years, the report finds, Verma frequently circumvented the civil servants in the communications department and personally directed her hand-picked contractors to write her speeches, secure media appearances, and "even accompan[ied] one for a 'Girl's Night Out' networking event."
One of the contractors is Marcus Barlow, a Republican strategist and Verma's spokesman in her former role running a healthcare consulting firm based in Indiana. Verma wanted Barlow to run her official communications, but she was overruled by the White House because Barlow had publicly said: "I am not, nor will I ever be a Donald Trump supporter. I find him to be offensive and ignorant." Verma, who is closely aligned with Vice President Mike Pence, didn't get Barlow as her communications chief, but instead gave him a contract and appears to have flouted rules governing that contract by putting him in charge of staff.
The inspector general included communications between two senior CMS civil servants after Barlow told them that he needed to see and clear any tweets sent out on the CMS account. "I'm trying to figure out if it is legal for a contractor to direct federal personnel," one of them wrote in August 2017 to the other, who responded: "I have been wondering the same thing." The first official minimized the exchange later, telling auditors for the inspector general that he'd had an "emotional reaction" and didn't believe the contractor was trying to direct him. Nonetheless, a contractor should not be directing civil service officials.
The inspector general’s report also included Verma's recommendation to contractors that they hire Washington, D.C.-based communications expert Pam Stevens to set up Verma's media appearances. Stevens created a publicity plan to put Verma in magazines like Glamour, get her invited to glitzy public events like the Kennedy Center Honors, and to get her put on "Power Women" lists. None of which does anything about providing health care for people in a global pandemic or developing a healthcare plan for the contingency that Trump prevails in court and destroys the Affordable Care Act.
HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo responded in a very Trumpian way to the inspector general’s report—he attacked the watchdog. "The President, Vice-President and the Secretary have enormous confidence in Administrator Verma and the great work she has done, and will continue to do, for the American people," he said. "But confidence in the Inspector General? Not so much." That could be an indication that the long-simmering pissing match between Verma and HHS Secretary Alex Azar has been extinguished. They do have a common enemy now: transparency.