Trump health official Seema Verma spent millions in taxpayer funds to boost ‘personal brand,’ Democrats charge

Congressional Democrats are accusing a top health official in President Donald Trump‘s administration of “extensive abuse” of millions of taxpayers’ dollars, in part by retaining a raft of GOP-tied media consultants in an attempt to boost her “personal brand.”

Leaders from four congressional committees, who on Thursday revealed the results of a 17-month investigation into Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma’s use of public funds, are now calling on her to “personally reimburse the taxpayers for these inappropriate expenditures.”

The Democrats say they obtained tens of thousands of documents showing dozens of questionable billing statements – including that one consultant, Pam Stevens, billed almost $3,000 for work related to setting up a “Girl’s Night to honor the Administrator.”

The probe was conducted by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, House Oversight and Reform Committee, Senate Finance Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“Our investigation found that Administrator Verma misused funds appropriated by Congress and wasted taxpayer dollars intended to support critical federal health care programs,” the Democratic committee leaders said in a joint statement. 

“Congress did not intend for taxpayer dollars to be spent on handpicked communications consultants used to promote Administrator Verma’s public profile and personal brand. Administrator Verma has shown reckless disregard for the public’s trust,” they said.

The Democrats accuse Verma of building a “shadow operation that sidelined CMS’s Office of Communications.” Her cadre of handpicked consultants charged CMS nearly $6 million in less than two years, the report alleges.

CMS did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the probe. The White House did not immediately provide comment.

The investigation comes two months after the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Health and Human Services published a report accusing Verma of misusing more than $5 million in taxpayer money to pay politically connected contractors and subcontractors.

CMS, one of the largest agencies in the federal government, oversees the massive public health-care programs Medicare and Medicaid, which provide crucial coverage and services to primarily older and poorer Americans, respectively. The agency also administers the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Obamacare private health insurance exchanges and the Obamacare program.

Verma was confirmed by the Senate in 2017.

As part of the probe, Democrats obtained tens of thousands of pages of documents from HHS and other parties, conducted interviews with associates of two consulting firms used by CMS and collected additional information from “databases, court records, and press reports, among other sources.”

The report says Verma was most reliant on consultant Marcus Barlow, who had reportedly been blocked by the White House from becoming the official CMS communications director due to his prior criticisms of Trump.

Barlow, who had previously been the spokesman for Verma’s former consulting firm, SVC Inc., “billed CMS for hours that approximated those of a full-time employee while charging a rate that would result in more than double the $179,700 annual salary of CMS’s top communications official,” the report says.

The investigation suggests that CMS “may have violated applicable law governing the agency’s use of appropriated funds” due to Verma’s expenditures on private consultants.

“CMS appears to have made unlawful expenditures in violation of these conditions,” the report says.

Consultants for Verma also failed to comply with standard federal expense protocol, the report says, by providing vague descriptions on invoices and not providing dates for the work.

The report alleges that Verma’s “outsized reliance” on consultants led to redundancies in staffing, particularly on office travel, that created “a significant cost to taxpayers.”

The Democrats allege that some of the work detailed in the obtained documents could be illegal forms of “self-aggrandizement.” Such work, the report says, includes matters that personally benefited Verma and not the agency she leads.

The report zeroes in on a two-page “Executive Visibility Proposal,” drafted by Stevens, to boost Verma’s image by targeting media outlets for potential profile pieces and placement of high-profile lists that would portray her as a powerful and influential figure.

Those media targets included “Badass Women of DC,” Glamour’s “Women of the Year Awards” and the Washingtonian’s “Most Powerful Women in Washington” list, among others.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates. 

— CNBC’s Dan Mangan contributed to this report.

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