GAO confirms questionable Trump-era celeb campaign ad spend

The Trump administration used taxpayer money to pay a contractor with ties to a senior health department official to plan a star-studded COVID-19 ad campaign before the 2020 election, and initially vetted the participating celebrities based on their politics, a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirms.

Those findings and some of the other details laid out in the March 30 report align with stories the news outlet Politico published about the ad campaign in late 2020, which raised questions about the campaign’s messaging, timing and the involvement of Trump appointee Michael Caputo, then the health department’s top spokesman. 

The federal watchdog said the FDA awarded a nearly $15 million contract in September 2020 to Atlas Research for the campaign, which was led by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS's) Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs office.

Although it doesn’t mention Caputo by name, the report cites “a potential pre-existing business relationship between an ASPA official involved in the public education campaign and one of the suggested subcontractors.” 

The watchdog said it has referred the matter to the Office of Inspector General at HHS and the Department of Justice for "action they deem appropriate.”
HHS terminated the contract with Atlas in November 2020 after an internal review, but not before spending $2.5 million on the effort, according to the report. 

The $15 million contract was part of a larger $265 million COVID-19 public education campaign that came under scrutiny by a congressional committee looking into the campaign’s messaging and whether Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funds were being used to pay for the campaign. 

The GAO found that Atlas created a list of 250 potential celebrities and included information about their “political affiliations or related public statements, any arrests, and identified the demographic groups the celebrities would most likely reach.” 

That lines up with Politico’s report, which said contractors “vetted at least 274 celebrity contributors for their stances on gay rights, gun control and the 2016 election before allowing them to participate in the campaign.”

The news outlet reported that Caputo initially wanted to frame the campaign around the idea of “helping the president" and urged contractors to rush the production of ads with celebrities like Trump-supporting actor Antonio Sabato Jr. 

Atlas ultimately filmed PSAs with only three, including CeCe Winans and actor Dennis Quaid, who had publicly praised Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, although they never aired, Politico reported at the time.

Atlas told the GAO the celebrities were selected based on the audience being targeted and  “not on political support or affiliation." HHS later decided to end the contract because it “relied solely on members of the entertainment industry instead of traditional evidence-based communication," according to the report.

A second $250 million contract awarded to the consulting firm Fors Marsh Group was allowed to continue. 

That firm's work involved more traditional messaging for vaccine development and COVID-19 prevention for TV, radio print and social media channels and included designing the theme and logo for HHS’ “We Can Do This” campaign, according to the watchdog. Fors Marsh received another $150 million contract to continue the campaign from August 2021 through 2022.

The Trump administration tapped CDC COVID-19 relief funds to fund the effort, the report confirms, including $100 million from the CARES Act and $200 million from the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act. 

The GAO said its review raised questions about whether the work was “consistent with the purposes of appropriation” for the latter two relief programs. However, HHS has since “identified a more appropriate funding source” and is now using only CARES Act funds, according to the report.