Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina). US Department of Agriculture photo.

A House committee set up to keep tabs on the federal government's coronavirus response is investigating why huge no-bid contracts for medical supplies were awarded to companies that appear to be completely incapable of meeting the needs of this crisis.

Rep James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), chair of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, sent a letter earlier this week to several Trump administration officials asking why they chose to award particular contracts to supply personal protective equipment (PPE). The committee also sent letters to seven of the companies that got lucrative contracts that have generated scrutiny in the press. National Public Radio obtained a copy of Clyburn's letter to the government officials.

"The Administration awarded contracts to inexperienced suppliers," Clyburn wrote in a letter addressed to the heads of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. "More than 445 companies had no prior experience in the federal marketplace before receiving awards related to the pandemic response. Many of the companies awarded contracts ... registered to do business with the government for the first time this year, some just days before successfully winning a contract."

Some of those companies have been the focus of excellent investigative reporting by ProPublica and the Washington Post, and it's good to see Congress looking into the deals. Like for instance, a $3 million contract for respirator masks that went to a former White House aide, Zach Fuentes. Fuentes served as deputy chief of staff under John Kelly; you may remember him as that dude who tried to "hide out" in a government job after Kelly's firing long enough to collect early retirement from the Coast Guard. Yeah, that guy!


As it turns out, Fuentes moved on to other grand schemes, as ProPublica reported in May. He created his company 11 days before he was awarded the contract, and by golly, he delivered a ton of masks for use by the Indian Health Service (IHS) just in time to "help" with the horrific COVID-19 outbreak in the Navajo Nation. Except, oopsies, there were some tiny problems with the merchandise his company delivered:

The IHS told ProPublica it has found that 247,000 of the masks delivered by Fuentes' company — at a cost of roughly $800,000 — may be unsuitable for medical use. An additional 130,400, worth about $422,000, are not the type specified in the procurement data, the agency said.

What's more, the masks Fuentes agreed to provide — Chinese-made KN95s — have come under intense scrutiny from U.S. regulators amid concerns that they offered inadequate protection.

"The IHS Navajo Area Office will determine if these masks will be returned," the agency said in a statement. The agency said it is verifying Fuentes' company's April 8 statement to IHS that all the masks were certified by the Food and Drug Administration, and an FDA spokesperson said the agency cannot verify if the products were certified without the name of the manufacturer.

Not to worry, though, because Fuentes insisted he had no help from the White House at all, so everything was on the up and up. And if he said that, is there any need for Clyburn to investigate anything at all.

NPR notes that no Republicans on the bipartisan committee signed on to the letter to the Cabinet secretaries, which requested the officials to return "complete contract files, solicitations, contracts, task orders, and email traffic from seven companies by July 28."

Other companies targeted for scrutiny include "Federal Government Experts," the focus of another ProPublica story you need to read to believe. The company, which had zero experience providing medical supplies, got a $34.5 million contract to supply Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals with six million N95 respirators, but the deal fell through. The committee wants to know why the VA agreed to a contract that would have paid the inexpert company just under $5.75 per mask, roughly a 350 percent markup, if the masks had actually been delivered.

The letter said the company "lacked a realistic plan to acquire masks" and charged "more than three times the manufacturer's price." NPR has confirmed that the VA's inspector general is also looking into how the contract was awarded. NPR contacted the company by email and a spokesman confirmed that they had received the letter and the subcommittee's request for documents. "Our firm currently has no, nor has ever had, a relationship with the Trump administration, either directly or indirectly," the CEO of Federal Government Experts, Robert S. Stewart Jr., wrote in an emailed response, adding that the award was based on regular federal acquisition procedures.

That's a heck of a non-denial denial there. How are you defining "relationship," for one thing? How did the contract get approved?

ProPublica's story details all sorts of weird shit about the company, like the amusing but probably not illegal fact that "large portions of the text on FGE's company website had been lifted verbatim from a 1982 Harvard Business Review article." Or that Mr. Stewart made unsupported claims that he had inside contacts on Mike Pence's Coronavirus Task Force, who turned out not to exist. The whole thing looks incredibly fishy.

Clyburn's investigation also sent a letter to Paul Wexler, the CEO of Fillakit, LLC, which delivered millions of unusable plastic tubes that were supposed to be part of coronavirus test kits. Except they weren't medical-grade test tubes of any kind; they were plastic tubes called "preforms" that are designed to be expanded by heat and a burst of compressed air into two liter soda bottles. They aren't sterile, and they don't fit the racks labs use for real test sample bottles. And Wexler, who settled a Federal Trade Commission telemarketing fraud lawsuit in 2013, only formed the company the week before he received a $10.5 million contract to supply nasal swabs and sterile containers, although we can't imagine how the stuff he delivered was sterile.

Citing the ProPublica stories about Fillakit's adventures in pandemic contracting, Clyburn's letter advises Wexler,

This contract award and your company's performance raise serious questions as to why your company received this contract, how your company's performance will impact the federal government's response to the coronavirus crisis and ongoing shortages in critical supplies, and what steps the federal government should take now to address these issues.

No word yet on Wexler's reply to Clyburn. Perhaps he'll take the same approach to the congressional inquiry he did when a ProPublica reporter dropped by the Fillakit warehouse where workers were literally shoveling plastic tubes off the floor into bins: Just scream at the congressman, "What's your problem, man?"

We're looking forward to learning more about how this investigation plays out, assuming all the documents haven't already been pulped and used to make surgical masks that fall apart when touched.

[NPR / ProPublica / ProPublica / NYT / ProPublica]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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