This week Politico broke the news of a scathing Congressional investigation into the lavish spending of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma, centered around boosting her own “brand image” and position among inside-the-beltway Washington power brokers.
According to the report, Verma sidestepped the use of CMS’ internal public relations team, and instead engaged a handpicked group of consultants, who charged the government over $6M in less than two years for their work in polishing her public profile and personal brand, arranging meetings with media, and traveling with her to events around the country.
The spending line items included tens of thousands of dollars focused on “getting Seema on lists”, including Politico’s “50 Most Powerful People in DC” and Washingtonian’s “Most Powerful Women in Washington”. Consultants were paid to arrange op-eds and interviews for Ms. Verma, with outlets such as AARP, Christian Broadcasting Network, and Fox News, and $450 was spent on a makeup artist to ensure Ms. Verma was perfectly camera-ready for a two-minute video shoot. The outside advisers even charged nearly $3,000 to arrange a private “Girls’ Night” event held last November at the home of a USA Today bureau chief, to network Verma with other DC insiders.
This isn’t the first time that Verma’s spending has come under scrutiny. In July the Office of the Inspector General found that Verma’s publicity spending violated federal contracting rules, and she was widely criticized for filing a $47,000 expense request for personal items stolen on an official trip, including a $325 jar of moisturizer and a $5,900 Ivanka Trump-brand necklace.
Public relations expenses to educate the public and promote official initiatives are standard fare, but Verma’s lavish spending, often focused on boosting her personal image, shows a stunning lack of judgement, if not an overt misuse of taxpayer dollars. We’d rather see those dollars put to more worthwhile uses, like educating people on how to best shop for insurance, or how to access testing and other needed care services during the largest healthcare crisis of our lifetimes.