HHS inspector general: Health grants could have illegally funded lobbying

Federal healthcare grants might have been illegally used for political lobbying, according to the Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general.

The inspector general said grants administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) might have been used for lobbying efforts — and that the CDC might have led recipients to believe lobbying was appropriate, despite a federal ban on using grant money for political activism.

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Inspector General Daniel Levinson outlined his office’s findings in an “early alert” letter to CDC Director Thomas Frieden, a copy of which was obtained by The Hill.

Some materials the CDC provided to grant recipients “appear to authorize, or even encourage, grantees to use grant funds for impermissible lobbying,” Levinson wrote.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) raised concerns in May about the grant program, which was designed to promote wellness and prevention. Collins questioned whether the grants had funded political activism, possibly in violation of federal law. 

The HHS inspector general looked into the grants at the request of congressional staff and found the same red flags.

The CDC’s prevention grants fund state and local efforts to reduce smoking and obesity. Grant recipients file quarterly reports about their use of the federal funds, and those reports “contain numerous examples of activities that, on their face, may violate anti-lobbying provisions,” Levinson wrote.

CDC officials are looking into “several dozen” specific examples cited by congressional staff, according to Levinson’s letter.

It’s possible that federal money did not directly support the lobbying activities described in grant recipients’ reporting, but Levinson said even that situation would reflect a troubling misunderstanding.

“We recognize that grantees may have described activities accomplished before the award of the grant or even accomplished by other entities or with non-Federal funds — all of which would not implicate the anti-lobbying restrictions,” he wrote. “Nonetheless, the fact that grantees are reporting favorably about apparent lobbying is of concern, and may indicate faulty understanding of underlying funding prohibitions.”

The CDC’s grant application specifically cautions against using federal money to seek more federal money, or for “grassroots lobbying” efforts such as contacting elected officials.

But the inspector general said that admonition is vague and incomplete, and that other materials provided by the CDC could appear to encourage lobbying.

For example, a “Frequently Asked Questions” document said grantees should outline a “comprehensive plan to reduce tobacco use through legislative, regulatory and educational arenas.” The CDC also outlined potential strategies for using the grant money, several of which would require legislative action, Levinson said.