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Skirting Law, Trump Officials Rewarded Politically Connected Firms With Big Federal Contracts

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

A top adviser to former President Donald Trump pressured agency officials to reward politically connected or otherwise untested companies with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts as part of a chaotic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the early findings of an inquiry led by House Democrats.

Peter Navarro, who served as Trump's deputy assistant and trade adviser, essentially verbally awarded a $96 million deal for respirators to a company with White House connections. Later, officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency were pressured to sign the contract after the fact, according to correspondence obtained by congressional investigators.

Documents obtained by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis after a year of resistance from the Trump administration offer new details about Navarro's role in a largely secretive buying spree of personal protective equipment and medical supplies.

But they also show he was among the first Trump officials to sense the urgency of the building crisis, urging the president to push agencies and other officials to "combat the virus swiftly in 'Trump Time'" and cut through the red tape of the federal purchasing system.

In another communication, Navarro was so adamant that a potential $354 million contract be awarded to an untested pharmaceutical company that he told the top official at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, "my head is going to explode if this contract does not get immediately approved."

Navarro did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The committee's work backs up investigations by ProPublica and other news outlets into the more than $36 billion the federal government has awarded, much of it without traditional bidding and with little scrutiny, to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least five of the committee's lines of inquiry are exploring issues reported by ProPublica, including the $96 million no-bid deal for respirators that was ordered by Navarro, a $34.5 million deal signed by the Department of Veterans Affairs that fell apart and ended with a contractor pleading guilty to fraud, a contract for masks awarded to a former Trump administration official, and the revelation that FEMA had paid millions to a contractor with a history of fraud allegations for unusable and unsanitary fake test tubes.

In a letter describing the subcommittee's findings, Democrat James Clyburn of South Carolina and members of the committee told President Joe Biden's emergency response team that Trump's lack of action worsened the health crisis.

"The President rejected calls from governors to ensure that the country had sufficient [personal protective equipment] and other supplies to address the crisis, leading to severe shortages and forcing states and cities to compete on the open market," they wrote.

The committee asked officials overseeing FEMA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with the director of the National Archives, to provide records detailing Navarro's actions and the circumstances behind several questionable contracts awarded in response to the pandemic, which has left more than 550,000 Americans dead and many more suffering.

"In the absence of a coordinated national plan, various White House officials pursued ineffective, ad hoc approaches to procuring certain supplies. Recently obtained documents show that White House officials pushed federal agencies to issue non-competitive contracts for certain pharmaceutical ingredients and other items — some of which would not be ready for many months or even years — even as acute shortages for surgical masks, nitrile gloves, gowns, and other items continued," members of the subcommittee wrote.

The respirator deal, with Airboss Defense Group, a subsidiary of Canadian company Airboss of America, was reported by ProPublica in April 2020 after a highly unusual entry in federal procurement data indicated the contract had been directly ordered by the White House. The Trump administration provided few answers about the award, but records the company provided to Congress indicate the firm used an influential consultant to connect Navarro with Airboss CEO Patrick Callahan.

Retired four-star Army Gen. John Keane, whom Trump had recently awarded the Medal of Freedom, reached out to Navarro on behalf of Airboss and the company got a phone meeting with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, emails show. The emails indicate that the company delivered an initial batch of respirators to FEMA before any contract was awarded, and the company upped its production on the promise that the White House, and Navarro, would make a contract official. Emails indicate the company expected to be paid upfront, at contract signing. The federal government typically doesn't pay until a contract is agreed to and a product is delivered.

Airboss' parent company nearly tripled its sales in large part because of the deals Navarro helped broker, the subcommittee wrote, and saw a $12 million increase in profit from April to June 2020. The company said it hadn't seen the subcommittee's letters but defended its work with FEMA.

An Airboss spokesperson said in a statement that the company is "proud of its successful efforts to rapidly respond to the urgent requests of the then White House Coronavirus Task Force to help supply the U.S. Government with urgently-needed PPE equipment to save lives, and protect our front-line healthcare professionals in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Within days of the request, ADG mobilized its extensive U.S. PPE manufacturing capabilities, and vast supply chain network to produce and begin delivering this critical equipment."

In a separate contract negotiation, this time for generic pharmaceuticals, Navarro pressured FEMA and officials leading the effort to beef up a depleted national stockpile to award a potential $354 million deal to Phlow to make drug ingredients. In an email pressing BARDA officials, Navarro wrote:

"This is a travesty. I need PHLOW noticed by Monday morning. This is being screwed up. Let's move this now. We need to flip the switch and they can't move until you do. FULL funding as we discussed."

Democrats on the subcommittee noted that Phlow had never before received a federal contract and had incorporated just a couple months earlier, in January 2020. ProPublica left a message with a company spokeswoman, who has not yet responded.

In another public letter this month, the subcommittee expressed concern that Robert Stewart, the CEO of Federal Government Experts LLC, which was awarded a no-bid $34.5 million contract with the VA and a smaller deal with FEMA, wasn't cooperating with its investigation.

This contradicts statements his lawyer made before a federal district judge just weeks before, that Stewart was helping congressional investigators, as he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud. Stewart did not immediately respond to calls and text messages.

Correction:

March 31, 2021: This story originally misstated the honor awarded to retired four-star Army Gen. John Keane. It was the Medal of Freedom, not the Medal of Honor.

The Police Officer Murdered By Trump’s ‘Law And Order Patriots’

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

The grieving family of a slain Capitol Police officer says he was a private man whose death shouldn't be politicized. But now it is forced to make sense of the reality that he is a victim of political violence, his legacy forever linked to an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.

"He spent his life trying to help other people," the officer's eldest brother told ProPublica. "This political climate got my brother killed."

Brian David Sicknick, 42, died Thursday of injuries he sustained while trying to protect the Capitol from a mob of violent rioters supporting President Donald Trump who rushed the building to disrupt the certification of the presidential election.

Before the officer's death had officially been announced late Thursday, the Sicknick family was rushing from its home in New Jersey to see him in a Washington-area hospital as word circulated on social media that a Capitol Police officer had succumbed to grave injuries.

Last they had heard, Sicknick was in critical condition on a ventilator, according to family members who spoke to ProPublica. While some news reports had said an unnamed officer was in critical condition after being bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher, family members did not have details of his injuries. They say Sicknick had texted them Wednesday night to say that while he had been pepper-sprayed, he was in good spirits. The text arrived hours after a mob's assault on the Capitol had left more than 50 officers injured and five people dead.

"He texted me last night and said, 'I got pepper-sprayed twice,' and he was in good shape," said Ken Sicknick, his brother, as the family drove toward Washington. "Apparently he collapsed in the Capitol and they resuscitated him using CPR."

But the day after that text exchange, the family got word that Brian Sicknick had a blood clot and had had a stroke; a respirator was keeping him alive.

"We weren't expecting it," his brother said.

As apparently premature news of Sicknick's death spread in law enforcement circles, the U.S. Capitol Police Department remained silent, including no response to an early request for confirmation from ProPublica on Thursday evening. The family learned from reporter phone calls that something was wrong.

"We have not gotten any calls," Ken Sicknick said when first contacted. Brian Sicknick was the youngest of three siblings, all boys. "We're kind of overwhelmed right now. You guys are getting reports of his death before I even got anything."

Nearly an hour later, the department issued a statement rebutting news reports that an officer had died. The department finally reported that Sicknick had died at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, adding that this was the result of injuries sustained during the attack the previous day.

By the time family members reached the hospital, they say, Sicknick was dead.

In separate interviews with ProPublica, family members say they are still waiting to learn exactly what happened. They described Sicknick as the kindest of the three siblings. They said he went to a technical school to study electronics but ditched it to follow his dream of becoming a police officer. They couldn't confirm the time of death.

The family's grief and confusion comes amid serious questions about how a secretive police department that is well-funded and highly trained at quelling violent protests and protecting members of Congress had failed to protect one of its own from an attack that had been planned out in plain sight.

In a press release, the department said: "The entire USCP Department expresses its deepest sympathies to Officer Sicknick's family and friends on their loss, and mourns the loss of a friend and colleague."

The Sicknick family issued its own press release Friday, urging the public and reporters to not politicize Sicknick's death.

"Please honor Brian's life and service and respect our privacy while we move forward in doing the same. Brian is a hero and that is what we would like people to remember," the statement said.

Still in shock, one family member, who agreed to talk but asked not to be named, said Sicknick had sometimes expressed frustrations with his job.

"Occasionally he would mention that they were very understaffed and they worked a lot of hours," the family member said. "And morale could be low."

Larry Schaefer, who spent 34 years on the force before retiring last year and knew Sicknick, said Wednesday's breach of the Capitol was unfathomable until he saw it on his TV screen.

"We handle demonstrations on a regular basis," Schaefer said. "We're prepared for this kind of stuff. We hold people back in a perimeter. We're set up for mass arrests, to load buses of people away."

He said he blames department leaders for the tragedy. Under pressure from congressional leaders, Chief Steven Sund of the Capitol Police and two other security officials have resigned.

After Sicknick struggled to find a policing job early on, his family said, in 1997 he joined the New Jersey National Guard "as a means to that end." He was deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was honorably discharged in 2003, according to a Guard spokesman.

He subsequently trained to be a Capitol Police officer, graduating in 2008. The family came down to see the graduation ceremony, in "one of those big fancy buildings," one family member said.

One of his first assignments was working the inauguration of former President Barack Obama, a moment that filled Sicknick and the family with pride.

Twelve years later, Sicknick was a member of the department's First Responder Unit when Trump, in the final days of a presidency that fomented anger and division, held a rally that precipitated the Capitol attack.

In a press release Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said, "The violent and deadly act of insurrection targeting the Capitol, our temple of American Democracy, and its workers was a profound tragedy and stain on our nation's history."

"I send our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Officer Brian Sicknick," Pelosi said. "The perpetrators of Officer Sicknick's death must be brought to justice."

After a forced hiatus from Twitter, Trump returned to his favorite platform on Friday to honor his supporters, whom he called "patriots," and to announce he will not attend the inauguration of Joe Biden.

In a statement, Trump's deputy press secretary Judd Deere said: "Anytime a member of law enforcement dies in the line of duty it is a solemn reminder to us all that they run toward danger to maintain peace. The President and the entire Administration extend our prayers to Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick's family as we all grieve the loss of this American hero."

Mollie Simon contributed reporting.

Capitol Rioters Plotted Publicly For Weeks, But Police Were Unready

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

The invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was stoked in plain sight. For weeks, the far-right supporters of President Donald Trump railed on social media that the election had been stolen. They openly discussed the idea of violent protest on the day Congress met to certify the result.

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Shady Executive Got $4.5 Million Federal Mask Deal Despite FTC Sanctions

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Desperate to acquire masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, two federal agencies gave nearly $20 million in contracts to a newly formed California company without realizing it was partly run by a man whose business activities were under sanction by the Federal Trade Commission, court records show.

On Tuesday, a U.S. District Court judge froze the company's assets, most of which had come from the Department of Veterans Affairs in a $5.4 million mask deal. A story by ProPublica revealed Jason Cardiff's role in operating VPL Medical LLC in June.

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Trump Administration Paid Millions To Sketchy Supplier For Useless Test Tubes

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Since May, the Trump administration has paid a fledgling Texas company $7.3 million for test tubes needed in tracking the spread of the coronavirus nationwide. But, instead of the standard vials, Fillakit LLC has supplied plastic tubes made for bottling soda, which state health officials say are unusable.

The state officials say that these “preforms," which are designed to be expanded with heat and pressure into 2-liter soda bottles, don't fit the racks used in laboratory analysis of test samples. Even if the bottles were the right size, experts say, the company's process likely contaminated the tubes and could yield false test results. Fillakit employees, some not wearing masks, gathered the miniature soda bottles with snow shovels and dumped them into plastic bins before squirting saline into them, all in the open air, according to former employees and ProPublica's observation of the company's operations.

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Hundreds Of Federal Coronavirus Contractors Were Hired Without Bids — Or Qualifications

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

A firm set up by a former telemarketer who once settled federal fraud charges for $2.7 million. A vodka distributor accused in a pending lawsuit of overstating its projected sales. An aspiring weapons dealer operating out of a single-family home.

These three privately held companies are part of the new medical supply chain, offered a total of almost $74 million by the federal government to find and rapidly deliver vital protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies across the U.S. While there's no evidence that they obtained their deals through political connections, none of the three had to bid against competing firms. One has already lost its contract for lack of performance; it's unclear if the other two can fulfill their orders on time, or at all.

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How ‘Pirates’ Caused Supply Delays That Led To VA Deaths

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Before embarking on a 36-hour tour through an underground of contractors and middlemen trying to make a buck on the nation's desperate need for masks, entrepreneur Robert Stewart Jr. offered an unusual caveat.

“I'm talking with you against the advice of my attorney," the man in the shiny gray suit, an American Flag button with the word “VETERAN" pinned to his blazer, said as we boarded a private jet Saturday from the executive wing at Dulles International Airport.

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White House Pushed FEMA To Let Biggest Pandemic Contract Without Bids

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Last month, as a deadly new virus swept over the globe, one Canadian defense contractor predicted on an earnings call that it would lead to a big business opportunity in the U.S. Thanks to the White House, that bet paid off just a few weeks later in a $96 million no-bid deal.

In an unusual move, even in times of disaster, the White House stepped into the federal purchasing process, ordering the Federal Emergency Management Agency to award a contract to AirBoss of America. The Trump administration has rushed through hundreds of deals to address the pandemic without the usual oversight, more than $760 million reported as of this week, but the AirBoss transaction is the single largest no-bid purchase, a ProPublica analysis of federal purchasing data found.

While FEMA placed the order, it was directed to do so by the White House, ProPublica found.

It is unclear why the White House chose AirBoss for the protective equipment, which is similar to products made by other vendors.

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