Governor Kathy Hochul defends COVID test purchases amid pay-to-play allegations

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New York Governor Kathy Hochul is defending a decision to buy $637 million in rapid COVID-19 tests from a campaign donor.

His Republican opponents have taken up the issue, and a government reform group has said it deserves an investigation.

The controversy centers on his administration’s purchase of more than 50 million COVID home tests last December and January. The tests were manufactured by AccessBio, a New Jersey-based company, but the state health department did not purchase the tests directly from the company. Instead, it used an intermediary buyer, a company called Digital Gadgets.

Digital Gadgets owner Charles Tebele and his family members are campaign donors to Hochul, contributing more than $300,000. Most of these contributions came after the purchase orders for the tests were signed.

The transactions were first reported by the Albany Times Union. The document also revealed that the state of California also purchased COVID tests from AccessBio, but did not use an intermediary to obtain them. This state only paid about half the money per test.

Hochul said she was unaware that the owners of Digital Gadgets contributed to her campaign. She said she tries to separate campaigning and governance. But she defended the price paid for the tests, saying it was at a time when the omicron variant was spreading and she was worried about having enough tests to keep schools open.

Karen DeWitt

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New York State Public Radio

Governor Kathy Hochul answers questions from the media on September 28, 2022.

“My directive to my team was, ‘The only way to get kids back to school is to hoard as many test kits wherever you need them. Go ahead, do it,” Hochul said Sept. 23. “That was my only involvement.

The governor said “no contribution has ever had any effect on a public policy decision” in her administration. And she said she “follows all the rules.”

John Kaehny, of government reform group Reinvent Albany, said there were several troublesome questions surrounding the deal.

“The number of red flags going up here is phenomenal,” Kaehny said.

He said the state has access to cheaper tests through other companies, but opted to buy most of them from Digital Gadgets. The company is not an established medical supplier and has never sold the tests.

Kaehny said the company also has a history of questionable transactions. Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio contracted with Digital Gadgets to supply ventilators earlier in the pandemic. The company’s owners have also made significant donations to de Blasio’s 2020 campaign for the presidency. Some of those contracts were dropped after the company failed to deliver the ventilators.

Another warning sign, Kaehny said, is that since Hochul was operating under the emergency powers granted to her during the pandemic, she did not need to ask for offers for the contract, as is normal. required by New York State law. The emergency order also removed the state comptroller’s powers to review purchase orders.

“The sad, sad reality about this is that it looks like one of the biggest pay-to-play scandals in New York State history,” said Kaehny, who added that the “truth” of what had happened had to be discovered.

Kaehny’s group is calling for a federal civil and criminal investigation into the deal. Federal grants related to the pandemic were used for purchases.

Hochul’s opponent in the November election, Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican, highlights the issue in a campaign ad.

“Hochul faked a lucrative COVID testing contract for a major donor at double the price,” the narrator intones as ominous music plays in the background.

Zeldin, in a recent campaign appearance in Rochester, called it “blatant and profitable corruption.”

“(There is) no evidence that Kathy Hochul is trying to negotiate a better price for New York taxpayers,” Zeldin said Sept. 29. try to get a better deal directly from them. That’s what California did. And they paid 45% less.

Despite the criticism, Hochul does not back down and continues to say that she did nothing wrong.

“I would do it again, I needed to protect people,” Hochul said Sept. 28. “We got the result.”

But Hochul admitted there could be “more safeguards” in place, and she said she was aware of the importance of public perception.

In a statement, Hochul’s publicist, Hazel Crampton-Hays, offered more context to the question.

“At a time when demand for COVID tests so outstripped supply that New Yorkers were spending hours lining up around blocks trying to buy tests before stores ran out of stock,” he said. she said, “Governor Hochul has sought to address this huge need for testing by directing his team to procure as many tests as possible to distribute to nursing homes, senior centers, local governments who couldn’t get the tests they needed on their own, and to help schools reopen safely after the winter break.

Crampton-Hays said the administration was working with “federal and local partners on pop-up testing sites and stocking mass vaccination sites with testing” and called those efforts successful, noting that in early January , “more than 95% of New York City school districts were operating completely in-person when major school districts across the nation implemented remote learning.”

She added that Hochul, in public briefings during the winter surge, informed New Yorkers of the state’s efforts to procure testing. She also said state officials contacted vendors to locate tests to purchase, and that vendors also contacted the administration.

Crampton-Hays said Hochul did not oversee the procurement process and “was not involved in day-to-day procurement decisions.”

“She simply asked her team to buy as many available tests as possible to meet the huge need across the state, and they did just that to keep New Yorkers safe,” Crampton said. Hays. “As we have always said, campaign donations have no influence on government decisions, and we reject any implication to the contrary.”

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