Democrats double down in their investigation over political interference at HHS in new letter
Posted September 23, 2020 10:18 a.m. EDT
CNN — House Democrats are following up on their request earlier this month for documents and a series of transcribed interviews with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials.
This comes as concerns grow about whether agencies are facing undue political influence as they grapple with how to respond the country's coronavirus pandemic.
In a new letter Wednesday, Democrats on the House's Select Committee on Coronavirus, say they are "troubled" that witnesses have not been made available "even though recent reports suggest a pattern of political interference is crippling the Department's ability to serve as a trusted source of public health information during the coronavirus pandemic."
The letter comes just days after the CDC retracted new guidance about airborne coronavirus transmission that the agency said was posted as the result of a confused staffer who hit "publish" without approval. The incident underscores the growing concern of Democrats on Capitol Hill who fear that the government's reaction to coronavirus is being led by politics rather than science.
"The serious and ongoing nature of these problems—and the potentially serious consequences for the American public if CDC cannot produce credible public health information during the coronavirus pandemic—makes it imperative that the Select Subcommittee conduct transcribed interviews quickly, without waiting for HHS to produce documents," Rep. James Clyburn, the chairman of the select committee, wrote in his letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
The follow-up letter comes after HHS responded to Democrats' September 14 request for interview and documents by questioning why the subcommittee needed to conduct the interviews on short notice.
"We understand the Subcommittee's desire to schedule the transcribed interviews quickly. However, the Subcommittee's September 14 letter includes a broad document request in addition to requesting transcribed interviews with seven individuals. The proposed schedule for interviews in the Subcommittee's letter requests that all interviews be complete before receiving any documents from the Department. The practice of rapidly scheduling interviews prior to the receipt of any responsive documents suggests that the interviews may be pretextual," HHS Assistant Secretary for Legislation Sarah Arbes wrote in a September 18 response letter.
HHS did say that "as a good faith effort of accommodation and compliance," HHS would begin identifying and organizing documents requested.
"As is the Department's longstanding practice, once the documents are gathered and reviewed, we will provide responsive material on a rolling basis," Arbes wrote to the committee.
Democrats say that isn't good enough.
"Although HHS's September 18 letter proposed focusing on documents first, it did not include any commitment to produce documents by the Select Subcommittee's September 28, 2020, deadline and instead offered only to make productions 'on a rolling basis,' 'once the documents are gathered and reviewed.' That is not a meaningful offer of accommodation, but merely a promise of further delay," Clyburn wrote.
In the original request, Democrats proposed transcribed interviews with seven individuals, including Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at Health and Human Services. Caputo has since taken a medical leave of absence for the agency. Democrats said in their follow-up letter that they are willing to delay an interview with Caputo until he returns from medical leave. Democrats did, however, reiterate they want to sit down with Paul Alexander, a close ally of Caputo's, who HHS announced last week would leave the agency permanently.