Report: Stimulus Dollars Illegally Used for Tobacco Lobbying

19-month Cause of Action investigation reveals mismanagement by CDC

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

WASHINGTON -- The cover story of this month's CSP Tobacco Supplement questioned whether the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) was misusing stimulus-funded Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) dollars to help communities enact tobacco-related legislation (which is illegal under federal law). Turns out CSP and NATO weren't the only ones questioning how these funds were used: Cause of Action—a government accountability organization—recently released the results of a 19 month investigation of how CPPW funds are being used. (Read the full report here).

According to a press release, the report, titled "CPPW: Putting Politics to Work," exposed an "endemic lack of oversight and accountability within the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and its Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which led to the misuse of millions of taxpayer dollars by eight recipients of grants from the Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) program."

After news hit that the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) had issued a June 2012 report covering potential misconduct of CPPW grantees in Florence County, South Carolina, Cause of Action expanded its own investigation--ultimately finding seven other communities where CPPW dollars were being used to fund lobbyists and public relations companies to push legislation that would lead to tax increases on tobacco or sugar sweetened products--a violation of both federal law and HHS and Office of Management & Budget (OMB) guidelines. Those communities include Pima County, Ariz., Mobile County, Ala., Jefferson County, Ala., Miami-Dade County, Fla., DeKalb County, Ga., Los Angeles County, Calif., and Santa Clara County, Calif.

A total of $94 million CPPW funds were allocated to these communities.

"Cause of Action has uncovered that the Department of Health & Human Services, the largest grant-issuing agency in the federal government, by failing to conduct effective oversight of the CPPW program, allowed taxpayer dollars to be misused, in some cases violating federal statute," Cause of Action's executive director Dan Epstein said of the findings. "With a program whose funding is expected to grow into the billions, how much more lobbying will the taxpayers be on the hook for before Kathleen Sebelius decides that it's time to be accountable?"

The report concludes that its findings warrant investigation, review and accountability--especially considering an additional $2 billion in funding is scheduled through 2015 under the 2010 Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act's Community Transformation Grants program to fight obesity and tobacco use at the local, state and federal level.

Cause of Action intends to continue its investigation, as the organization is still waiting on information regarding 32 of the 44 grantees from the CDC in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.