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White House ‘Volunteer’ Got $2.4M Medical Supply Contract For Federal Prisons

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

A company created by a former Pentagon official who describes himself as a White House volunteer for Vice President Mike Pence won a $2.4 million contract in May — its first federal award — to supply the Bureau of Prisons with surgical gowns.

Mathew J. Konkler, who worked in the Department of Defense during the George W. Bush administration, formed BlackPoint Distribution Company LLC in August 2019 in Indiana, state records show, but had won no federal work until May 26. The Bureau of Prisons chose the company with limited competition for a contract to supply surgical gowns to its facilities.

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Democrats Demand Investigation Of Bigoted Appointees At USAID

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Democratic senators have called for the Trump administration to investigate anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim statements made by recent appointees to the U.S. Agency for International Development, urging the organization to do more as its leaders grapple with internal strife over their approach to issues of racism and inclusion.

The letter by seven senators made oblique reference to nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations calling for racial justice, saying that it is “important that employees hear from their leadership at the USAID an unequivocal commitment to addressing institutional prejudices."

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Federal Agencies Spent Millions On Masks — Without Knowing Who Made Them

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

In scrambling to buy protective equipment for the coronavirus pandemic, federal agencies purchased up to $11 million worth of Chinese-made masks, often with little attention to manufacturing details or rapidly evolving regulatory guidance about safety or quality, a ProPublica review shows.

Some agencies cannot say who made their masks at a time when thousands of foreign-made respirators appeared on the market, some falsely claiming approval or certification by the Food and Drug Administration. Some agencies bought the masks, known as KN95s, from companies that share a U.S. representative with another firm recently accused of fraud by the Justice Department.

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USAID Hires Anti-Gay Critic Of ‘Liberal Democracy’

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

A new Trump appointee to the United States' foreign aid agency has a history of online posts denouncing liberal democracy and has said that the country is in the clutches of a “homo-empire" that pushes a “tyrannical LGBT agenda."

In one post, Merritt Corrigan, who recently took up a position as deputy White House liaison at the U.S. Agency for International Development, wrote: “Liberal democracy is little more than a front for the war being waged against us by those who fundamentally despise not only our way of life, but life itself."

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Former White House Official Got Deal To Supply Masks — But Do They Work?

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

A former White House aide won a $3 million federal contract to supply respirator masks to Navajo Nation hospitals in New Mexico and Arizona 11 days after he created a company to sell personal protective equipment in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Zach Fuentes, President Donald Trump's former deputy chief of staff, secured the deal with the Indian Health Service with limited competitive bidding and no prior federal contracting experience.

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U.S. Officials Backed World Health Organization As Pandemic Struck

As President Donald Trump publicly bashed the World Health Organization over its response to the coronavirus pandemic last week, American aid officials tried to delicately sidestep the political tensions, internal documents shared with ProPublica show.

And Trump's campaign upended weeks of partnership between his own administration and the WHO, which provides advice and support for health officials in developing countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development had chosen to funnel much of its pandemic response through the WHO.

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Leaked Memo Shows Officials Warned Trump Against Defunding WHO


An internal memorandum written by U.S. officials and addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warns that cutting funding to the World Health Organization, as President Donald Trump said he would do Tuesday, would erode America's global standing, threaten U.S. lives and hobble global efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The memo, which was prepared before Trump's Rose Garden announcement, was written by officials within the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and includes a detailed list of how U.S. funding to the WHO helps countries in the Middle East control the pandemic.

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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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How Tea Party Budget Mania Left America Vulnerable To Pandemic

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Dire shortages of vital medical equipment in the Strategic National Stockpile that are now hampering the coronavirus response trace back to the budget wars of the Obama years, when congressional Republicans elected on the Tea Party wave forced the White House to accept sweeping cuts to federal spending.

Among the victims of those partisan fights was the effort to keep adequate supplies of masks, ventilators, pharmaceuticals and other medical equipment on hand to respond to a public health crisis. Lawmakers in both parties raised the specter of shortchanging future disaster response even as they voted to approve the cuts.

"There are always more needs for financial support from our hardworking taxpayers than we have the ability to pay," said Denny Rehberg, a retired Republican congressman from Montana who chaired the appropriations subcommittee responsible for overseeing the stockpile in 2011. Rehberg said it would have been impossible to predict a public health crisis requiring a more robust stockpile, just as it would have been to predict the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It's really easy to second-guess and suggest we didn't do as much," he said. "Why didn't we have a protocol to protect the Twin Towers? Whoever thought that was going to happen? Whoever thought Hurricane Katrina was going to occur? You tell me what's going to happen in 2030, and I will communicate that to congressmen and senators."

There were, in fact, warnings at the time: A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded report by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials urged the federal government to treat public health preparedness "on par with federal and state funding for other national security response capabilities," and said that its store of N95 masks should be "replenished for future events."

But efforts to bulk up the stockpile fell apart in tense standoffs between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans, according to administration and congressional officials involved in the negotiations. Had Congress kept funding at the 2010 level through the end of the Obama administration, the stockpile would have benefited from $321 million more than it ended up getting, according to budget documents reviewed by ProPublica. During the Trump administration, Congress started giving the stockpile more than the White House requested.

By late February, the stockpile held just 12 million N95 respirator masks, a small fraction of what government officials say is needed for a severe pandemic. Now the emergency stash is running out of critical supplies and governors are struggling to understand the unclear procedures for how the administration is distributing the equipment.

The stockpile received a $17 billion influx in the first and third coronavirus stimulus bills that Congress passed in March. But there had not been a big boost in stockpile funding since 2009, in response to the H1N1 pandemic, commonly called swine flu.

After using up the swine flu emergency funds, the Obama administration tried to replenish the stockpile in 2011 by asking Congress to provide $655 million, up from the previous year's budget of less than $600 million. Responding to swine flu, which the CDC estimated killed more than 12,000 people in the United States over the course of a year, had required the largest deployment in the stockpile's history, including nearly 20 million pieces of personal protective equipment and more than 85 million N95 masks, according to a 2016 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

"We recognized the need for replenishment of the stockpile and budgeted about a 10 percent increase," said Dr. Nicole Lurie, who served as the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. "That was rejected by the Republican House."

Republicans took over the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms on the Tea Party wave of opposition to the landmark 2010 health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The new House majority was intent on curbing government spending, especially at HHS, which administered Obamacare.

Congressional Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate and House Speaker John Boehner, leveraged the debt ceiling — a limit on the government's borrowing ability that had to be raised — to insist that the Obama administration accept federal spending curbs. The compromise, codified in the 2011 Budget Control Act, required a bipartisan "super committee" to find additional ways to reduce the deficit, or else it would trigger automatic across-the-board cuts known as "sequestration."

Even in the aftermath of the swine flu pandemic, the stockpile wasn't a priority then. Without a full committee markup, Rehberg introduced a bill that provided $522.5 million to the stockpile, about 12 percent less than the previous year and $132 million less than the administration wanted. "Nobody got everything they wanted," Rehberg said.

The Senate version of the funding bill offered $561 million for stockpile funding. Senators said they regretted the cuts even as they voted for the bill.

"In this bill we're now getting into the bone marrow," Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who then chaired the Senate appropriations committee, said at the markup. "Some of these cuts will be painful and unpopular."

In the bill's final version, Congress allocated a compromise $534 million for the 2012 fiscal year, a 10 percent budget cut from the prior year and $121 million less than the Obama administration had requested.

The next year, the "super committee" failed to secure additional savings demanded by the Budget Control Act, triggering the automatic, across-the-board cuts. This "sequestration" was an outcome that the leaders of both parties disliked — and blamed one another for.

"Did either party ever indicate sequestration was welcome, positive or desirable?" Dave Schnittger, Boehner's deputy chief of staff at the time, told ProPublica. "Sequestration was conceived — not by Republicans, but by a Democratic White House — as a crude mechanism to compel the super committee to do its job. Republicans consistently advocated for reductions in mandatory spending programs that would have prevented sequestration from ever happening." (Mandatory spending refers to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.)

McConnell's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for Obama, pointed to numerous statements he made in 2013 urging Republicans to compromise, warning that the sequester would weaken economic recovery, military readiness and basic public services.

Gene Sperling, then a top Obama economic adviser, said Republicans focused attacks on the HHS budget, along with the Departments of Labor and Education, which are grouped under the same appropriations subcommittee.

"The Labor/HHS budget is where a significant number of progressive priorities are, from Head Start to (the National Institutes of Health) to the Education Department," Sperling said. "There's just so much in there, so it is often the hot spot for where conservative budget hawks who don't believe in public investment go hardest."

Under sequestration, the CDC, which managed the stockpile at the time, faced a 5 percent budget cut. In its 2013 budget submission, HHS decreased its stockpile funding request from the previous year, asking for $486 million, a cut of nearly $48 million. "The SNS is a key resource in maintaining public health preparedness and response," the administration said. "However, the current fiscal climate necessitates scaling back."

The decrease caught Rehberg's attention at a budget hearing to review the request.

"Disaster preparedness is something that has been very important to me," he said at the hearing. "I just would like to have you explain how such a large reduction can possibly not impact the national preparedness posture."

Then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius answered that the CDC would prioritize replacing expiring drugs such as smallpox vaccines and anthrax treatments.

The next year, the administration again proposed cutting the stockpile's funding from the 2012 funding level, but it warned that reduced funding could result in "fewer people receiving treatment during an influenza pandemic."

Congress did grant extra funding in response to emergencies, but even then, the stockpile was a small-ticket item. In 2014, the Obama administration asked for and received billions of dollars to respond to the Ebola outbreak, but only $165 million went to the CDC's public health emergency preparedness programs, including the stockpile. And in 2016, Congress granted emergency funding to respond to the Zika virus, but it gave the CDC less than half of what the Obama administration requested.

"It's clear that the administration prioritized the SNS in this (Zika) request and in the Ebola supplemental," said Ned Price, who was a spokesman for the National Security Council in the Obama White House. "In the case of Zika, congressional Republicans sat on the request for the better part of a year."

The stockpile's mission has steadily expanded as it confronts new public health emergencies. With limited resources, officials in charge of the stockpile tend to focus on buying lifesaving drugs from small biotechnology firms that would, in the absence of a government buyer, have no other market for their products, experts said. Masks and other protective equipment are in normal times widely available and thus may not have been prioritized for purchase, they said.

"It just was never funded at the level that was needed to purchase new products, to replace expiring products and to invest in what we now know are the really necessary ancillary products," said Dara Lieberman, director of government relations at the Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan public health advocacy and research group.

The sequestration and strict budget caps ended with budget deals in 2018 and 2019 — a bipartisan rebuke to the earlier restraints. "It's a burden off our shoulders," Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters at the time. "In a troubled world, I think that was the wrong message."

Yet non-defense spending still hasn't fully recovered.

"One of the things that happened to public health preparedness was just the result of the general budget stringency we had," said David Reich, a consultant working on federal appropriations issues for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "We're still seeing the results of that."

During the Trump administration, the White House has consistently proposed cutting the CDC and the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, which took over stockpile management from the CDC. Congress approved more stockpile funding than Trump's budget requested in every year of his administration, for a combined $1.93 billion instead of $1.77 billion, according to budget documents.

The White House budget request for 2021, delivered in February as officials were already warning about the dangerous new coronavirus, proposed holding the stockpile's funding flat at $705 million and cutting resources for the office that oversees it.

Lydia DePillis contributed reporting.

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Did Another Trump Appointee Violate Hatch Act?

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Federal workplaces are supposed to be free of politics, but a Trump administration appointee used a government forum Wednesday to express support for the president’s reelection.

At a conference on religious freedom hosted by the State Department, an official told the crowd of several hundred people that “hopefully he will be reelected,” referring to President Donald Trump.

It’s illegal for federal employees to engage in political activities while they are on the job.

“It’s a violation of the Hatch Act for a federal official, to say in her official capacity, to hope that the president will be reelected,” said Kathleen Clark, an expert on legal ethics at the Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s not the first time a Trump administration official has appeared to cross a line. In a harsh report, a government ethics office concluded that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was a “repeat offender” and recommended she be fired.

“Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” the ethics office wrote. “Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law.”

Trump did not punish Conway.

The latest questionable comment came from Samah Norquist, a special adviser on religious pluralism in the Middle East at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Norquist is also the wife of conservative tax activist Grover Norquist.

In response to ProPublica’s questions, Tom Babington, a USAID spokesman, said in a written statement that agency personnel “immediately alerted” USAID’s chief legal officer about the comment. The legal office sent the issue to USAID’s ethics official for review and action.

“The Agency takes the Hatch Act very seriously and requires all employees to receive annual ethics training, which includes training on the Hatch Act,” Babington said. “No final decision has been made regarding a determination of a violation or potential appropriate administrative action.”

The political references began when the panel moderator, Norquist, read a written question from an audience member. “What happens to U.S. involvement in Iraq if Trump loses the election?” the query said, sparking awkward laughter.

Max Primorac, the USAID special representative for minority assistance programs in Iraq, answered first, noting that Congress had passed in 2018 a bipartisan bill authorizing the State Department to give relief to the victims of Islamic State, particularly religious minorities such as Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims, holding it up as proof that the whole country supports the policy.

Primorac then added, “President Trump will win again, but I’m very confident that this is now an American project.”

Norquist echoed his remarks about religious minorities in Iraq, calling it “an American issue” rather than a partisan one. Then, she veered into politics. She added, “And we all hope whether it’s Trump, and hopefully he will be reelected, or not, that it continues to be a priority for our government.”

Here is the exchange.

Norquist and Primorac did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

 

U.S. Suspends Refugee Resettlement Interviews

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has temporarily halted trips by staff to interview refugees abroad as it prepares for a likely shakeup of refugee policy by President Donald Trump, two sources with knowledge of the decision said on Thursday.

The decision effectively amounts to a pause in future refugee admissions, given that the interviews are a crucial step in an often years-long process.

The DHS leadership’s decision to halt the interview trips was communicated to those involved in the U.S. refugee admission process on Wednesday, one of the sources said.

It means that though Trump has not yet ordered a temporary halt to the refugee program, future admissions are likely to be delayed.

Trump is expected to sign an executive order that would include a temporary ban on all refugees, and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Thursday that Trump could sign several executive orders on Friday, but that the nature of those had not been decided yet.

Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project at the New York-based Urban Justice Center, said she was informed of the decision to halt the overseas interviews by several people in and outside of government.

Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security and which conducts the interviews, said the agency had delayed “a number of upcoming trips” but that they had not been “officially canceled.”

DHS officers regularly visit countries such as Jordan, Malaysia, El Salvador, Kenya, and Ethiopia to interview refugees seeking to enter the United States. It is usually one of the last steps in the refugee resettlement process.

Heller said the decision to halt the overseas interviews would cause delays in refugee processing even if Trump decides to maintain the refugee program or re-start it after a temporary closure.

“In the past, when we’ve frozen the refugee program to re-examine security issues, it’s been really important to continue processing even if you can’t admit people, because processing times in this program can be two to three years,” Heller said.

During the election campaign, Trump decried former President Barack Obama’s decision to increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States over fears that those fleeing the country’s civil war would carry out attacks.

Obama approved allowing up to 110,000 refugees in the 2017 fiscal year, compared with 85,000 the prior year.

Trump said during the election campaign that there was no proper system to vet refugees.

In addition to the interviews, refugees hoping to be resettled in the United States undergo extensive security screening by multiple U.S. agencies as well as vetting by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Kieran Murray and Leslie Adler)

IMAGE: A volunteer contacts the relatives of an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala after arriving to Announciation House, an organization that provides shelter to immigrants and refugees, in El Paso, U.S. January 17, 2017.  REUTERS/Tomas Bravo