Inspector general: Medicare chief broke rules on her publicity contracts

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.

In one case, the inspector general report recounts, two senior CMS civil servants questioned the legality of the arrangement after Barlow instructed agency staff that he needed to be among the officials clearing tweets before they were posted.

“I’m trying to figure out if it is legal for a contractor to direct federal personnel,” a top communications official wrote in August 2017 to a team member, who responded, “I have been wondering the same thing.”

The communications official later minimized the email to the inspector general, telling the auditors that he’d had an “emotional reaction” and didn’t believe the contractor was directing him.

Still, the episode fit a pattern of Verma charging contractors with directing tasks that ranged from the high-profile to the mundane, from writing major speeches and organizing events to managing media requests and approving tweets.

For example, Verma recommended that contractors hire Pam Stevens, a well-known Washington communications expert, to help set up her media appearances, according to the inspector general’s report. Stevens would go on to devise a publicity plan for Verma that proposed profiles in magazines like Glamour, invitations to prestigious events like the Kennedy Center Honors and recognition on “Power Women” lists. CMS has downplayed the plan and said that many of Stevens’ proposals were not pursued.

In the process, CMS paid those contractors at rates far exceeding those of senior government employees to perform duties that the inspector general said should have been handled by the agency’s more than 200 in-house communications officials.

“Improper administration and management of contracts can put the government at increased risk for waste and abuse,” said Tesia Williams, a spokesperson for the inspector general.

In a letter signed by Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan, HHS agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations and committed to an evaluation of its contracts.

But Verma disputed the findings in an extensive response to the inspector general that accompanied the report, calling them “disingenuous” and arguing that auditors cherry-picked their findings.

“Making these conclusions is only possible using an incomplete record of evidence and a misunderstanding of federal contracting requirements,” Verma wrote. “I wholly disagree that the management and execution of the contracts ever gave rise to serious concerns.”

Verma also chastised the inspector general for the timing of its report.

“CMS should be solely focused on responding to an unprecedented global pandemic, but instead had to spend precious time responding to the numerous mischaracterizations and technical inaccuracies” in the report, Verma wrote.