HHS criticized over ‘potentially illegal’ memo

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Republicans in Congress were critical of a memo circulated to HHS employees instructing them not to speak to federal lawmakers or their staffs without first clearing it with department leadership, saying it may infringe on the rights of whistleblowers.

Lance Leggett, the chief of staff to the HHS Secretary, sent a one-page memo on May 3 instructing employees not to have “any communications” with members of Congress or their aides without first consulting the department’s assistant secretary for legislation (ASL).

“This includes requests for calls, meetings, briefings, technical assistance, policy development, hearings, oversight, detailees, etc,” the memo read. “The ASL is responsible for ensuring Secretary Price's involvement on appropriate matters. Please instruct your staff to adhere to this procedure. Your cooperation will help us avoid unnecessary problems in our relationships with Congress.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassely, R-Iowa, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said not allowing direct communication between federal employees and Congress would be “potentially illegal and unconstitutional, and will likely chill protected disclosures of waste, fraud and abuse.”

“Absent such a clear communication from you, agency management may seek to intimidate whistleblowers from providing information to Congress. We will not allow that to happen and trust that nor will you. Protecting whistleblowers is crucial to effective government and the oversight process,” they wrote to HHS Secretary Tom Price, MD.

HHS has defended the memo, calling the policy on congressional communications “nothing new.”