Senior Republican senators on Thursday asked the Health and Human Services' inspector general to investigate Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' fundraising drive to promote the new health care law — a practice ethics specialists have said is anything from a legal stretch to a shakedown for cash.
In a letter to Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson, the top GOP senators on three influential committees asked if Mrs. Sebelius broke any laws or violated ethics guidelines by soliciting insurance companies and other health care industry entities to contribute to a nonprofit that says it will educate Americans about the health law.
"These activities call into question whether appropriations and ethics laws are being followed," said the letter signed by Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
Watchdogs and good-government groups disagree over whether Mrs. Sebelius violated federal laws by seeking funds on behalf of a nonprofit group, called Enroll America, to promote "Obamacare," but all say asking private companies and entities to financially support the rollout of the massive and complex law raises serious ethical questions for the Obama administration, which is already reeling from a string of recent controversies.
The administration and its critics were also sparring over whether Mrs. Sebelius was targeting private companies and other groups that she would soon be regulating as part of the health bill, or that could be in line for contracts to help implement the law.
"Obviously, there's an appearance problem," said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "If she was soliciting for a Girl Scout troop in her neighborhood — something totally unrelated to health care — I don't think you would have these questions, but she is charged with implementing the most significant health care changes in a generation."
Cleta Mitchell, a Republican elections and ethics attorney, said the HHS effort amounted to a precedent-setting government intimidation campaign targeting private companies and entities.
"This is really quite scandalous," she said. "The government is soliciting money from companies regulated by those doing the soliciting. [There is] nothing like a regulator asking for 'voluntary' contributions."
Mr. Obama's former campaign backers set up Enroll America as a nonprofit geared to pitch the health law to the public, and to encourage citizens to sign up for benefits.
HHS officials have confirmed that since March, Mrs. Sebelius directly solicited donations from tax preparation giant H&R Block and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit that supports anti-obesity and other health outreach campaigns. H&R Block has yet to respond to the appeal, but the foundation has donated a total of $14 million to Enroll America, although it hasn't said how much of that was in response to Mrs. Sebelius' appeals.
Mrs. Sebelius' efforts on behalf of Enroll America, which is made up of Obama campaign loyalists, are stoking additional concerns over the new ways Mr. Obama is using outside campaign-style groups to promote his agenda.
Shortly after the 2012 campaign was over, his campaign committee morphed into an independent nonprofit group run by campaign manager Jim Messina and aimed at supporting the president's legislative agenda. Organizing for Action, as the group dubbed itself, can accept unlimited donations.
Republicans say the Sebelius fundraising drive may violate the federal "anti-deficiency" act, which prohibits government agencies from accepting voluntary services or donations. But HHS officials contend that a section of the Public Service Act specifically permits the secretary to ask outside companies and entities to write checks to support health programs.
Craig Holman, an ethics specialist at Public Citizen, said Mrs. Sebelius' initiative is likely protected under the Public Service Act because the law provides specific allowances for HHS officials to accept gifts as long as the funds are being used specifically to carry out the agency's function — and implementing the president's health care law is clearly part of its mandate.
Even if it's legal, however, Mr. Holman calls the fundraising idea "very problematic."
"It's problematic that we have a federal law that allows Sebelius to apply pressure on those she regulates to chip in to promote Obamacare," he said. "Even though they have a stake in getting more people to enroll, they may or may not disagree with the rest of the program."
Republicans are calling for more details to be released.
Last week, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to more than a dozen companies, including top insurers, to ask whether anyone at HHS tried to solicit funds from them to support the overhaul.
In their letter Thursday, the three senators cited a recent Washington Post editorial that accused Mrs. Sebelius of "dancing around serious ethical lines."
"We believe the [office of inspector general] is well-positioned to impartially examine any and all evidence regarding these practices on the part of Secretary Sebelius or other HHS officials," they wrote.
?? Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.
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