- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2012

A $1 billion fund created by President Obama’s health care law, which Republicans have derided as a slush fund, is under investigation for suspicions of lobbying rule violations.

The inspector general for the Health and Human Services Department says “healthy living” grants given from the fund appear to have been used to lobby for changes to state laws, a violation of federal guidelines.

The money was distributed from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for health initiatives aimed at curbing the consumption of sugary sodas to fight obesity, smoking cessation and encouraging physical activity.

But some materials that the CDC passed along to grant recipients “appear to authorize, or even encourage grantees to use grant funds for impermissible lobbying,” HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson wrote in an “early alert” sent to CDC Director Thomas Friedman.

The CDC’s grant application warns recipients that using federal money to contact elected officials or for “grassroots lobbying” is illegal. The inspector general, however, said the warning is vague and incomplete and appears to conflict with other CDC materials that appear to encourage lobbying.

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While it’s possible that federal money did not directly support state and local lobbying activities, Mr. Levinson said, the open acknowledgment of the lobbying in some of the grant recipients’ quarterly reports shows a lack of understanding about the lobbying prohibition.

Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine and Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, the top Republicans on the Senate and House oversight committees, have raised several questions about the grants.

“While I strongly support the wellness and prevention mission of the CDC,” Ms. Collins said last week, “I also support the safeguards Congress has put in place on the use of federal funds to protect against the misuse of tax dollars. Every dollar spent on inappropriate or illegal activities is a dollar that didn’t go toward saving lives and improving health.”

CDC officials are now reviewing “several dozen” charges of illegal lobbying activity that congressional aides have documented, according to Mr. Levinson’s letter.

The future of the fund, which received $1 billion this year and is slated to receive $1.25 billion in 2013, has been a hot topic on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, congressional Republicans wanted to slash it as a way to pay for an extension of the student-loan interest rate subsidies. Democrats defended it as a key part of Mr. Obama’s health care legacy.

The fund became even more controversial after Mr. Obama argued that it supports critical women’s health initiatives and accused Republicans of harming women’s health care by trying to cut it. That argument was widely debunked, and Republicans argued that their efforts to gut the wellness fund had nothing to do with women’s health.