WASHINGTON — A girls’ night at the Georgetown home of a prominent journalist, a lobbying push for soft-focus features in glossy magazines, a professional makeup artist and invitations to awards dinners and prestige panels.
The smorgasbord that expensive consultants laid out for Seema Verma, President Trump’s Medicare chief and a new arrival in town, proved to be enticing. The tab — $6 million in less than two years — fell to the federal taxpayer.
A yearlong investigation by congressional Democrats of Ms. Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, exposed not only a shadow operation to polish Ms. Verma’s personal brand but also the underside of life in Washington, where the personal and the professional often blend into a mélange of questionable interactions. Democrats said the report expanded on the findings of an audit in July by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services that criticized Ms. Verma’s use of outside consultants to perform “inherently governmental functions,” including strategic communications.
Ms. Verma runs an agency with a $1 trillion budget and 4,000 federal employees, overseeing federal health care programs used by 145 million poor and older Americans. The report released on Thursday outlined in detail the efforts of a team of handpicked Republican consultants paid by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as C.M.S., to work on Ms. Verma’s personal image, obtain profiles and coverage from friendly reporters, escort her during travel, write opinion articles and even draft her Twitter posts.
One of the consultants, Marcus Barlow, had served as Ms. Verma’s spokesman when she ran a consulting firm in Indiana. But the White House, objecting to Mr. Barlow’s disparaging statements about Mr. Trump during his election campaign, reportedly blocked him from the C.M.S. communications director post, the investigation found. So Ms. Verma hired Mr. Barlow on a contract that paid him for full-time work at a rate more than double the $179,700 annual salary he would have been paid as a federal employee.
Working under three different contracts, Mr. Barlow earned more than $209 an hour for one, $225 an hour for another and $230 for yet another. Of the nearly $6 million in total consulting fees, more than $5 million went to the communications and public relations firm Porter Novelli. Pam Stevens, a freelance public relations consultant, earned more than $115,000 in nine months, at a rate of $280 an hour. Deloitte Consulting received nearly $689,000 for “strategic communications.”
The larger issue than the cost, critics inside and outside the government say, was the broad access that Ms. Verma granted to the private consultants, one of whom, Brett O’Donnell, “was awaiting sentencing for a felony conviction during the entirety of the time he consulted for C.M.S.” for lying to the Office of Congressional Ethics during an investigation into the misuse of taxpayer funds, the report said.
Ms. Stevens, who helped plan the Republican National Convention in 2016 and 2020, billed the government for arranging meetings for Ms. Verma with journalists and influencers, including at parties in journalists’ homes in Washington. She brokered interviews by AARP The Magazine and on The Christian Broadcasting Network, pressed for spreads in Washingtonian, Capitol File and Good Housekeeping, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade Glamour to name Ms. Verma a Woman of the Year. Ms. Stevens was paid nearly $300 an hour plus expenses. At one point she tried, also unsuccessfully, to be reimbursed for the $131 she spent on a floral arrangement she sent to Fox News.
Among the expenditures detailed in the report is nearly $3,000 billed to C.M.S. by Ms. Stevens for organizing a “girls’ night” party for Ms. Verma at the home of Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Ms. Page was tapped last month to moderate the debate in October between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.
Other expenditures included $450 for a makeup artist for Ms. Verma for a video production and $500 per-night bills for hotels and time from consultants whose roles included driving Ms. Verma around.
Ms. Verma allowed the consultants to operate independently of federal employees on the C.M.S. policy and communications staff, who complained of the “chaos” created by their presence.
When reached on her cellphone on Thursday, Ms. Verma passed questions to career staff members at her agency, who forwarded a statement from Michael Caputo, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, the parent agency of C.M.S. Mr. Caputo called the report a “reckless, politically timed, drive-by hit job on a reform-driven Trump administration official and, by extension, on President Trump himself.”
Chrissy Terrell, a USA Today spokeswoman, said in a statement that “Susan Page was not paid or reimbursed by the federal government for the girls’ night event held at her home on Nov. 13, 2018. Page was also unaware Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was being billed for the event.”
The girls’ night events, she said, were hosted by “journalists including Judy Woodruff, Norah O’Donnell, Rita Braver, Andrea Mitchell and others to honor significant accomplishments of both Democratic and Republican women.” The events were “well within the ethical standards that our journalists are expected to uphold,” Ms. Terrell added.
USA Today said that Ms. Page had paid the costs for the reception, which came to “$4,025 for catering, plus several hundred dollars for beverages and a bit more in tips for the wait staff.”
In a statement, Ms. Stevens said she had been hired by Porter Novelli in August 2018 “to put together a plan to educate media about C.M.S.’s work through meetings” with Ms. Verma.
“I was then asked to facilitate meetings with some of the organizations in the plan as well as with thought leaders,” Ms. Stevens said, adding that she had resigned from the contract on March 28, 2019.
At the time of the contracts, Ms. Verma was a newcomer to Washington, brought into the administration by Mr. Pence, who had worked with her in Indiana, where she was a health care consultant.
The report called Mr. O’Donnell “a veteran political operative” who worked on the presidential campaigns of Michele Bachmann and John McCain and earned $236,000 from Republican congressional campaigns in 2018. Mr. O’Donnell caused an uproar in 2018 when he barred a reporter for the trade publication Modern Healthcare from policy briefings after its reporter Virgil Dickson and his editor refused to delete three sentences that Ms. Verma disagreed with from a story.
“I don’t think I’ve ever come across a situation where I was asked to remove something from a story in a way that felt like censorship,” Aurora Aguilar, the editor in chief of Modern Healthcare, told the Association of Health Care Journalists, which wrote about the episode.
The report gave a starring role to Ms. Stevens, who drafted an “executive visibility proposal” to “position” Ms. Verma “as the thought leader she is.”
Ms. Stevens “regularly circulated lists of ideas for conferences, speaking events and other potential profile-enhancing appearances,” the report said. She also proposed to “get Seema on lists, such as the Washingtonian’s ‘Most Powerful Women in Washington’ list, Capitol File’s top ‘Power Player’ list, Politico’s ‘50 Most Powerful People in D.C.’ list, N.Y. Moves Magazine’s ‘Power Women List,’ Maryland Daily Record’s ‘Most Admired CEOs’ list, Washington Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business, etc.”
Citing emails, the report said Ms. Stevens proposed to broker a series of off-the-record lunches and meetings with ostensibly friendly journalists “not tied to specific C.M.S. initiatives, but rather linked to the general goal of helping Administrator Verma expand her network by building relationships with decision makers in the press, politically connected individuals and other high-profile figures.”
Since the start of Mr. Trump’s presidency, Ms. Stevens has used the off-record girls’ night parties to fete administration officials at the homes of journalists and Trump officials. In August 2018, Ms. Stevens recommended that Ms. Verma “meet with editors of Woman’s Day, Women’s Health Magazine, Glamour and several Fox News hosts and contributors as part of a series of ‘getting to know you’ meetings with members of the national media while Administrator Verma was in New York City on official C.M.S. travel,” the report said.
During that trip, the report said, Ms. Stevens secured a meeting with a Fox News contributor and billed the government “at least $837.”