By Daniel Ducassi, FloridaBulldog.org
The DeSantis administration has been hurriedly handing out hundreds of no-bid COVID-19 related state contracts worth tens of millions of dollars while flouting contract transparency laws and stonewalling public records requests.
Since May 1, Florida Bulldog has asked the state for copies of a selection of some of the most notable no-bid COVID-19 contracts – including one they gave to a confessed thief and others given to companies tied to political contributions supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis’s election – but none has been released.
That’s despite a Florida law that requires state agencies, including the Executive Office of the Governor, to publicly post electronic copies of all contracts “within 30 calendar days after executing a contract.” The Transparency Florida Act, with overwhelming bipartisan support, established the state’s online contract tracking database and also required disclosure of other basic information about government contracts.
Florida Bulldog repeatedly has asked the governor’s top staff and Division of Emergency Management deputy general counsel Erik Sayler to explain why the administration has not posted the COVID-19 contracts in accordance with state law. No one would explain.
Meanwhile, the Division of Emergency Management has yet to provide a single requested contract, despite assurances more than a month ago from division director Jared Moskowitz that at least one of the contracts would be coming soon.
Gov. Desantis’s transparency issues
The administration’s transparency issues when it comes to dealing with the pandemic extend beyond public contracts. The DeSantis administration has come under fire for obfuscating COVID-19 data, most recently taking flak for changing guidelines for how hospitals report ICU beds, spawning an accusation from a Washington state pulmonologist that they’re “fudging the data.”
Rebekah Jones, a former Department of Health data official who managed the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, has repeatedly accused the state of manipulating data. She said she was fired after refusing to do so; the official reason was insubordination. The state has denied it manipulated data, and at a press conference on Wednesday, Gov. DeSantis blasted questions about the accusations as part of a “conspiracy bandwagon.”
State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami) described as “alarming” what he’s seen as a pattern of the DeSantis administration dragging out records requests until someone brings a lawsuit or puts public pressure on the administration to release the records.
“The administration’s attitude… during this pandemic has generally been to turn on its head how public records are supposed to work,” he told Florida Bulldog, calling it not only a “departure” from the law, but also from the state’s “tradition” of open government.
Separate from the public records requests, he noted, is the failure to meet the posting requirements enshrined in state law.
Rodriguez was a co-sponsor on the bipartisan 2013 bill that created the contract posting requirements, which he said the administration “obviously should be following.”
Former Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who pioneered the state’s contract tracking system, did not respond to requests for comment.
Embarrassing contract withheld
One contract withheld from public inspection was an embarrassing $11.3-million COVID-19 lab testing deal with a firm founded and led by a man who pleaded guilty to two financial felonies last year in Texas. Indur Services is a health coaching company, not a lab, founded and run by Brandt Beal, who Texas Department of Insurance investigators described as a “con artist.”
It’s not clear exactly what Beal promised the state and what representations he made to state officials about his abilities. What is clear is that Beal had a major testing contract with the state and his company sought out an actual lab company to do the work.
Division of Emergency Management (DEM) spokesman Jason Mahon offered a disquieting explanation for how Beal’s firm got the contract. “Time is of the essence when securing these critical testing supplies for Floridians, and that limited time does not allow for the Division to vet every company’s executive leadership or board of directors,” he said.
Beal’s $11.3-million testing contract was later axed and the work given directly to a lab company. Instead, according to a state transparency database, the governor’s office paid Beal more than $2.2 million to provide testing supplies. A DEM spokesman said the supplies were provided. The contract, however, has not been posted.
Likewise, the state hasn’t posted its approximately $9-million contract with Northwest Pathology, the lab company that got the testing work once assigned to Indur Services. Florida has paid more than $6.4 million on that contract to date, the database shows.
Donor contracts withheld
The state also has kept secret contracts handed out to big donors to Gov. DeSantis’s election effort. The Executive Office of the Governor contracted with the lab firm BioReference to provide COVID-19 testing. BioReference is owned by OPKO Health, which is chaired by South Florida billionaire Phillip Frost, who gave $75,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis in 2018, along with another $2,700 to the governor’s election campaign itself.
The contract’s value is unclear because it has fluctuated without explanation on the state database. It is currently valued at $2.7 million. A second BioReference COVID contract, this one with the Florida Department of Health for $2 million, has also been kept away from public view. It does not appear on Florida’s contract database, and the department has refused to release a copy since Florida Bulldog first requested it on May 1.
Neither Frost nor BioReference would comment on the firm’s contracts with the state.
Further, the state is also hiding a now-canceled $11-million testing contract the governor’s office had with Southwest Regional PCR. The state canceled the contract after a major Florida hospital chain canceled its own deal with the firm and raised questions about the validity of the firm’s tests – allegations the firm adamantly denies. In late April, Gov. DeSantis bragged about the deal as part of an effort to ramp up testing, only to cancel it weeks later without any tests being done.
The unseen contracts represent some of the state’s earliest efforts to secure testing, equipment and supplies to address the pandemic, yet the DeSantis administration continues to leave Floridians in the dark about how millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent.
The DeSantis administration’s decision to ignore questions about why it has not released copies of state contracts as required by state law threatens to keep the public in the dark even as it gears up to confront a deadly surge in COVID-19 cases.
Florida has “all the markings of the next large epicenter,” doctors who run the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s policy blog wrote on June 17. “The risk there is the worst it has ever been in our projections.”