House Oversight expands probe of pandemic ad blitz

DD&T is led by Den Tolmor, the longtime business partner of HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo, who conceived the campaign. Caputo is currently on medical leave and last month announced that he was seeking treatment for cancer.

“[T]he Administration may be improperly steering federal contracts to individuals with financial ties to senior political appointees,” Clyburn wrote in his letters, requesting documents by Oct. 15. The oversight subcommittee had previously opened a probe into a $250 million contract awarded as part of the ad campaign.

The House panel is seeking the contracts and related documents and all communications with Caputo, his personal scientific adviser Paul Alexander and Jeffrey Souder, who held multiple roles for Caputo’s private public relations firm.

Last month, senior House Oversight Democrats began probing the ad campaign, while calling for work to be halted while it’s under investigation.

An HHS spokesperson on Thursday said the contract was awarded “after a limited competition,” and that a technical evaluation panel of career federal officials reviewed the proposals. “Based on the review, the Technical Evaluation Panel recommended Atlas Research for the award,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

DD&T and Atlas Research did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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At White House’s urging, Republicans launch anti-tech blitz ahead of election

Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), meanwhile, is holding a markup of new legislation on Thursday aimed at addressing allegations of an anti-conservative bias on social media. It’s the fastest any bill to revamp the legal shield has moved from introduction to a markup on Capitol Hill in recent memory.

Both committees are targeting liability protections that have been credited with fueling Silicon Valley’s success. The provision — enshrined in a 1996 law known as Section 230 — has allowed online businesses to grow without fear of lawsuits over user posts or their decisions to remove or otherwise moderate users’ content.

Both lawmakers have reason to want to get in the White House’s good graces. Graham, a prominent Trump ally, is facing the fight of his political life to hold onto his South Carolina seat against Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison. And Wicker will want to maintain a firm hold on his gavel, which gives him jurisdiction over most legislation targeting Section 230.

The congressional actions mark a sudden and dramatic escalation of efforts by Senate Republicans to revamp the legal shield — particularly with a Congress readying for elections and embroiled in negotiations over Covid relief. But Republicans say Section 230 has allowed social media platforms to discriminate against conservative viewpoints with impunity. Tech companies deny any such bias, and the administration itself has noted there’s limited academic data to back up the concerns.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a top Trump ally on tech and longtime critic of Section 230, called the recent surge of activity by his colleagues “a sea change.” President Donald Trump, he said, has been a driving force in rallying them.

“There’s hardly a conversation I have with the president where this doesn’t come up, where Section 230 does not come up, usually raised by him,” Hawley said in an interview. “It is much on his mind and I think his strong stance on this issue has had a big effect in opening the eyes of some of my Republican colleagues to realize this is a major issue.”

Trump has taken his own steps to weaken Silicon Valley’s standing after Twitter began adding fact-check and warning labels to some of his tweets.

The president issued an executive order in May asking his independent agencies to crack down on the liability protections, and has taken an active role in seeking results. He has pulled in agency heads for discussions over how to implement the executive order and he nominated to the Federal Communications Commission a Commerce Department staffer who help craft an administration petition to narrow Section 230 protections.

The onslaught against the liability shield comes ahead of a November election where tech companies are likely to face high-stakes decisions over how to handle posts by Trump seeking to undermine the results of the tally. Facebook, Google and Twitter have all outlined plans to limit political candidates’ ability to declare premature victory or cast doubt on the voting process ahead of Nov. 3.

It’s not Thursday’s sessions

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Democratic groups launch digital ad blitz to flip Texas Legislature

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A coalition of groups working to flip the Texas House is unveiling a $1.1 million digital ad campaign backing 11 candidates.

With Democrats nine seats away from the majority, the program targets some of the most competitive races, according to details first shared with The Texas Tribune. The beneficiaries include contenders such as Joanna Cattanach, the challenger to state Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, and Akilah Bacy, who is running for an open seat in Houston.

The members of the coalition include the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee. Also involved are the Future Now Fund, The People PAC and The Creative Resistance.

Each of the 11 candidates has been endorsed by at least one of the coalition groups.

The majority fight is drawing increasing national investment. The Democratic super PAC Forward Majority announced earlier this month that it would spend $6.2 million across 18 races, while the Republican State Leadership Committee said days later that it would plow more into Texas than any other state this fall and top the Forward Majority investment.

“I feel good about where we are,” NDRC campaigns director Garrett Arwa said in an interview. “I think that for us, the evidence is in the fact that we are rolling out a program of this magnitude, with the number of partners we are rolling it out with.”

Arwa said the ads will be “largely positive” and, in general, will spotlight the candidates’ backgrounds, biographies and qualifications. “This is very district by district, this is very candidate by candidate,” Arwa said of the messaging.

Here are the 11 candidates benefiting from the digital ad blitz:

  • HD-26: L. Sarah DeMerchant, who is running for the seat of retiring Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land.
  • HD-64: Angela Brewer, who is running against Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton.
  • HD-66: Sharon Hirsch, who is challenging Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano.
  • HD-67: Lorenzo Sanchez, who is running to unseat Rep. Jeff Leach R-Plano.
  • HD-92: Jeff Whitfield, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.
  • HD-93: Lydia Bean, who is running to defeat Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth.
  • HD-97: Elizabeth Beck, who is opposing Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth.
  • HD-108: Cattanach, who is opposing Meyer.
  • HD-112: Brandy Chambers, who is challenging Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson.
  • HD-134: Ann Johnson, who is running against Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston.
  • HD-138: Bacy, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston.

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