Tech Bro Got $69 Million For 'Ventilators' After Tweeting At Trump. Nice.
While Donald Trump's complete malfeasance in handling the coronavirus pandemic in the USA has led to unnecessary deaths and suffering, at least it's been good for a class of people near and dear to the Great Man's heart: his fellow grifters. In fact, it appears that Trump's White House even managed to help one clever operator, a Silicon Valley tech bro with zero experience in medicine, medical supplies, or medical accessories, to land a hefty $69 million contract to sell ventilators to the state of New York. Sure, the ventilators were never delivered, and it's unclear whether the state will get its money back, but it makes for a hell of a story, as Buzzfeed News reports.
On March 27, as emergency rooms in New York and across the country began filling with coronavirus patients struggling to breathe, President Donald Trump posted on Twitter to urge Ford and General Motors to "START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW!"
One of the thousands of replies that the tweet attracted struck an equally urgent tone: "We can supply ICU Ventilators, invasive and noninvasive. Have someone call me URGENT."
The tech dude, electrical engineer Yaron Oren-Pines, has since taken his Twitter account private, but screengrabs are forever:
And while the White House is absolutely no good at all at keeping Donald Trump from retweeting white supremacists, it appears someone on the White House coronavirus task force was paying attention, because when New York went looking for ventilators, the task force came through. A New York state official told Buzzfeed that, on the strength of a recommendation from VP Mike Pence's task force, New York contracted to buy 1,450 ventilators from Oren-Pines for the bargain price of $47,656 per unit, which is merely three times the regular price of a high-end hospital ventilator.
And as we mentioned already, that's an especially high price for the kind of ventilator that doesn't exist. So what happened?
Nearly a month later, New York has terminated the contract, and the state is now trying to recover all of the money it paid the Silicon Valley electrical engineer. Officials refused to say how much the state had been able to claw back. "We are in discussions on a few remaining issues," said Heather Groll, a spokesperson for the New York Office of General Services, part of the interagency effort to help New York get supplies.
Reached by telephone, Oren-Pines said "neither me nor my company is providing any comment on this," and then hung up. He did not respond to subsequent text messages.
There are a lot of holy-shit moments in this piece, which looks at a whole bunch of other seemingly dubious deals that New York made in its mad scramble to acquire scarce medical equipment. But Buzzfeed's attempts to find out anything about Oren-Pines and his associates make the story a classic of the digging-up-a-scam investigative genre.
The larger story, of course, is less hilarious: As various grifters came running to try to get a piece of New York's emergency money, the state was desperate to get its hands on stuff like masks, gloves, surgical gowns, and ventilators, all the while bidding against other states and the federal government, because Donald Trump had decided, for the first time in history, that the national government wouldn't be in charge of a national emergency. If the "president" decides it's not his problem, then obviously it can't be his fault when things go wrong.
Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, explained that yeah, things got very chaotic when the national "leadership" told the states they were on their own:
We had no choice but to overturn every rock to find ventilators and other needed equipment [...]
States were forced to fend for themselves to purchase lifesaving supplies to combat a global pandemic and with all modeling showing a more severe spread of this virus with more hospitalizations and more fatalities
Some of the emergency measures Cuomo put in place also opened the state up to getting ripped off:
Like most states, New York's procurement rules typically prohibit payments for goods or services until after an order has been fulfilled. But Cuomo suspended those rules last month to meet the urgent need for ventilators, N95 masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment. A 25-member team now works overtime to vet potential vendors. In some cases, it has begun paying for orders before they are fulfilled.
In addition to contracts with traditional medical equipment outfits, the state also made payment to a whole bunch of concerns that are, well, concerning, or at least not companies you'd think of when looking for medical supplies:
upscale fashion and other apparel brands; Chinese iron ore and tool importers; a company that sells hair and wrinkle removal products; a number of private equity and investment firms; and even the Qatar Fund for Development, the state-run foreign aid arm of the petroleum-rich Persian Gulf nation.
If Buzzfeed News found out what those companies contracted for, it's not in this report, and there's no hint of it in the linked corporate sites. That may be in a later story, who knows. But hoo boy, this Oren-Pines guy! The piece wasn't able to find any information on how the coronavirus task force got his name, but the anonymous New York official says,
"The guy was recommended to us by the White House coronavirus task force because they were doing business with him as well, [...] I think everyone was genuinely trying to help each other out and get supplies." The New York official added that he was unaware of whether Oren-Pines got a federal contract; federal databases show no record of any such deals.
And then it's more time for passing the buck on who's going to comment: The White House told Buzzfeed to ask Pence's office. Pence's office said talk to FEMA. FEMA said it couldn't speak for the White House, and besides, it doesn't release information about "potential suppliers." Which we sure hope this dude is not. But at least once the article went up yesterday, Buzzfeed heard back from Pence's press spokesperson, Katie Miller, who sent along a statement saying "The White House Coronavirus Task Force was never informed of this contract and was not involved in it at all."
Oh look, it's another carefully crafted non-denial denial! We like the part where she didn't deny having referred New York to the guy in the first place.
In any case, there's a whole lot more about just exactly how much experience in various tech enterprises Oren-Pines has, and how not a bit of it is remotely related to medical devices. But Buzzfeed News was at least able to track down "one possible clue to his plans," which involved "Israeli entrepreneur Segev Binyamin, whose three Twitter followers include Oren-Pines."
An hour after Oren-Pines's Call Me Maybe tweet, Binyamin replied to a tweet from the Israeli Defense Minister, who had asked for help finding ventilators, with a terrific bit of news:
"I own a Chinese company and have the ability to ship 1,400 machines." That happens to be almost the exact number of ventilators Oren-Pines contracted with New York state to sell.
Reached by BuzzFeed News, Binyamin, whose account also follows Oren-Pines, repeatedly said "I'm not going to comment" before hanging up.
And that seems to be where the trail suddenly goes cold, at least until the whole frantic international race to find ventilators is written up in a screenplay that borrows heavily from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, the end.
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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.