ProPublica: Ex-White House Official Cashed In On Faulty Masks For Tribes

Published: Thursday, June 4, 2020 - 2:12pm
Updated: Friday, June 5, 2020 - 7:05am
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LAUREN GILGER: The coronavirus pandemic created massive supply challenges in our country, as well as a big opportunity for some. The federal government loosened many federal procurement rules as agencies rushed to respond to the crisis. And ProPublica reporters Yeganeh Torbati and Derek Willis began watching out for those who took advantage. They've been tracking federal contracts in the age of coronavirus and how the government is responding to the pandemic. And it was in that research that they flagged the name Zach Fuentes. The former White House official received a lucrative contract to make masks for the Indian Health Service. But it turns out those masks don't pass CDC muster and have been sitting in a supply center since they were purchased. I spoke with Torbati more about Fuentes and why there could be more loopholes for those benefiting from the government's crisis mode response to the pandemic.

YEGANEH TORBATI: So Zach Fuentes was a official in the Coast Guard. He, he served in the Coast Guard for many years. And when John Kelly became secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, Zach was sort of his military assistant. And then when Kelly moved over to the White House and became chief of staff there, Zach Fuentes went over with him and became deputy chief of staff to President Donald Trump. Subsequently, he left the administration sort of in late 2018, and he ultimately retired from the Coast Guard in January of this year. And when the coronavirus pandemic first really struck the United States pretty early on, sort of in early April, Zach Fuentes formed a company called Zach Fuentes LLC. And just a few days later, less than two weeks later, he got this big contract from the Indian Health Service. And his name popped up for me and my colleague, Derrick Willis, and knowing that he has this background in the White House, we thought it would be good to look into this and sort of see how this contract came about.

GILGER: Yeah. So let's talk about what you found. Does, first of all, Zach Fuentes, have any experience in, you know, medical supply, distribution and government contracting, things like this?

TORBATI: No, not that we know of, and not that he kind of laid out for me in the in the interview that I had with him prior to the first story being published. He did say that he has a consultant, who I've also actually spoken with, who has experience in global supply chains and in medical supplies, and that was sort of how he had been able to connect with these different manufacturers abroad. But he had not had — his company had not had any contracts with the federal government and had not really done this work for the federal government when he was awarded this fairly large contract in mid-April.

GILGER: Right. And tell us how much this contract is worth, and what ended up happening with these masks that he procured.

TORBATI: Sure. So the contract was initially worth $3.5 million and it was to provide 1 million masks to the Indian Health Service. And these are a particular type of mask. They're called "KN95s." And it's basically a Chinese version of the N95 mask, which is sort of a specialized respirator mask. Of course, N95s are in really short supply right now. And so the FDA has allowed the use of some Chinese made versions of those masks. So the Indian Health Service had put out this bid, and Zach Fuentes's company won the bid to provide a million of these masks. We actually just found out the masks that IHS bought at taxpayer expense from this former White House official actually don't meet FDA standards for use as respirators in hospital settings.

GILGER: And now you've been updating the story this week. Now there are several lawmakers who are calling for investigations into this. Tell us a little bit about those updates.

TORBATI: Right. So an official within the Department of Health and Human Services' Inspector General's Office testified before a House committee, and a senior Democrat on that committee, Gerry Connolly of Virginia, asked her to look into this contract and he cited our story. And she said that she would follow up with his office to talk about potentially looking into it. In addition to that, a handful of Democratic congressmen have asked for the Government Accountability Office to look into this contract. And another set of of Democratic senators and congressmen had a call with HHS officials to ask them for more details on this contract, how it, y'know, came about. Some of the elected representatives have asked to speak with the contract officer that was responsible for granting this. And they're really interested in knowing, you know, what FDA certifications the masks did have, if any, and how the, how the government sort of came to know this company, and how Zach Fuentes got this contract — I should say that he denies that there, that his role at the White House or any connections at the White House played any role in him getting this contract. But, you know, given his previous role and his connections to the Trump White House, those are certainly some questions that Democrats are asking.

GILGER: You reported that IHS has spent upwards of $85 million to respond to COVID-19, signing 318 contracts with 211 vendors. So I wonder, do you think this is a problem that could go further? Like, will there be any review of these contracts? Is there any concern that other, other products, other contracts are not up to standards?

TORBATI: It's a really excellent question. I mean, we know, we started digging into this particular contract because the name struck us as something that we should check on, the fact that this person had worked at the White House. And it was through kind of pulling on that string further and further and asking extremely detailed questions of this agency that we were able to realize that, "Oh, these masks were not even FDA-certified." It's just, it's really telling. And I, and you do, you do have to wonder, like, are the masks that the federal government is buying at great expense and in a great deal of panic ... Do they actually meet any certifications, and who's making sure of that? I think we've sort of found a big loophole where it seems like it doesn't look like any agency is actually seeing, "OK, is the equipment that we're buying and we're providing to health care providers actually meeting any standards?" I can only imagine that that this is happening elsewhere, and certainly there's, there's a lot to be looked into. You know, the federal government is responding to the pandemic in sort of crisis mode because it was unprepared and because it had not built up its stockpile of masks and other equipment. And when you're in a crisis and you have basically unlimited amounts of money, you're willing to do whatever you can to get this equipment. And clearly, that means taking some shortcuts as well.

GILGER: All right. That is Yeganeh Torbati, who covers the U.S. federal government for ProPublica and is based in Washington, D.C. Yeganeh, thank you so much for coming on The Show to explain this to us.

TORBATI: Thank you for having me.

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