A Fox News reporter was told by Enroll America that “there was no truth” to a tip that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was fundraising for the group, ending an early investigation into her activities.
Emails obtained by the Washington Examiner through a Freedom of Information Act request show officials scrambling to decide how to respond to the Fox inquiry.
Two days after the Fox reporter, Joe Weber, was waived off by the denial, the Washington Post on May 10 would go on to break the story that Sebelius had asked private companies and nonprofits to donate to Enroll America, a group with close White House ties formed to promote Obamacare enrollment.
Weber received his denial from Cate Bonacini, then an aide for Enroll America who now works for its parent group Families USA. Bonacini, in emails to HHS and Enroll America staff, suggested she was unaware of Sebelius' activities. She promised that someone would get back to Weber about his tip. But no one ever followed up to correct her response.
On the afternoon of May 8, Bonacini sent an email to other staffers for the nonprofit and Michael Czin, who was working with Enroll America and would go on to be the Democratic National Committee's national press secretary.
In the email, Bonacini said she had just received a call from Weber at Fox News who said he had a tip that Sebelius has been fundraising “on our behalf.”
“He asked me point blank if this was true,” she wrote. “I told him that someone would get back to him, but to the best of my awareness, there was no truth to it.”
Four minutes later, Czin emailed back with a one-line question: “Did you say that off the record?”
In a separate email Czin sent 10 minutes later, he wrote that Enroll America's president, Anne Filipic, “got a question about this the other day that I don't think ever materialized into anything,” adding that “Sebelius is helping with some fundraising.”
A flurry of emails with the subject line “Urgent: Press inquiry from Fox News” followed minutes later between Czin, Filipic, Bonacini, other Enroll America staff and senior HHS aides.
Large sections of those emails released to the Examiner were redacted. HHS' FOIA response to the Examiner cited provisions of the law that allow for a “deliberative process” and advice between government staff and officials to withhold some communications.
In one email, Filipic asks Czin to “please circulate your proposed comment to this chain.” The rest of what appears to be a lengthy email along with Czin’s response are redacted.
A half hour later, Filipic asks the group if they should include White House staffers in their discussion on how best to respond.
“Do you guys want to loop the WH in for this convo or come to agreement on our end and then flag for them?” Filipic asks in an email sent from her iPhone.
Jason Young, HHS deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, in an email to the group said he was available to talk and “would prefer to talk among us first.”
“Fundraising limitations are different at each levels, so what is required of and OK for HHS is different than for WH and for [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services],” he wrote the group.
“Would like to sort through the issues, and then widen the conversations as appropriate, if that works for folks. Thanks!”
Two days later at 4:12 p.m. Friday, Sarah Kliff, then a reporter for the Washington Post, would break the story that Sebelius had made “multiple phone calls” to “health industry executives, community organizations and church groups” asking them to cut checks to nonprofit groups “working to increase awareness of the law.”
Fox News did not expand on the details of their reporters' interactions with Enroll America.
Kliff was a blogger for the Washington Post's Wonkblog when she wrote her story, but has since left, joining fellow blogger Ezra Klein on a new venture with Vox media. Vox Media did not return an email request for comment.
HHS spokeswoman JoAnn Peters did not address questions about how the agency responded to Fox News in her response to the Examiner.
She argued that the fundraising was both legal and proper under a provision in the Public Health Services Act that allows the secretary to promote programs and private nonprofit entities working to advance public health priorities.
The news that Sebelius was fundraising to promote Obamacare sparked anger among Republicans on Capitol Hill.
GOP lawmakers say Congress specifically prevented any more money from being spent to promote Obamacare and view Sebelius' fundraising as an illegal attempt to circumvent Congress's power of the purse.
In her statement to the Washington Examiner, Peters repeated that Sebelius is now no longer raising money for Enroll America, although she did not say why or when Sebelius stopped asking for donations.
HHS has pointed to similar public-private partnerships that took place under President George W. Bush's expansion of Medicare Part D.
“In the months leading up to Oct. 1, we worked collaboratively across the administration to get the word out about enrollment through education and outreach efforts, such as travel by principals, online chats, media interviews and coordination with partners on the ground,” Peters told the Examiner in a statement.
CORRECTION: Michael Czin worked for Enroll America at the time the emails in this story were sent on May 8; he later went to work for the Democratic National Convention. The Washington Examiner regrets the error. This story was published at 7:24 a.m. March 10, 2014, and was updated at 10:40 a.m. that day.