By Daniel Ducassi, FloridaBulldog.org
Millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts issued as part of Florida’s COVID-19 response have gone to a trio of firms tied to men who’ve contributed hefty sums to support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ political ambitions.
By DeSantis’ emergency decree on March 9, state agencies are allowed to suspend normal purchasing regulations and dole out millions of taxpayer dollars to companies without going through formal bidding processes that are typically required.
Among those contracts are $2.5 million in testing agreements with BioReference Laboratories. OPKO Health, chaired by South Florida billionaire and philanthropist Phillip Frost, acquired BioReference in 2015 for nearly $1.5 billion.
Frost is also a major DeSantis donor, contributing $75,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis in 2018, along with another $2,700 to the governor’s election campaign itself. He has also given heavily to Republican causes in the last 10 years including $200,000 in 2012 to the conservative Super PAC American Crossroads, and more than $120,000 to the Republican National Committee.
Frost last year agreed to pay a $5.5-million fine to settle SEC charges that he engaged in a “pump-and-dump” market manipulation scheme.
State contract database records show the Executive Office of the Governor entered into a $1.5 million testing contract with BioReference in late March, though this was later revised down to $500,000. Later, in April, the Florida Department of Health entered into a $3.8 million testing contract with BioReference. This was also later revised down to $2 million. No explanation was offered for those revisions.
Frost clams up about COVID contracts
Frost, through his secretary, declined to speak about the contracts or his political contributions. His office referred questions about BioReference to the firm’s chairman, Dr. Jon Cohen, who also serves as an OPKO vice president. When reached by phone, Cohen refused to speak to a Florida Bulldog reporter about the contracts. BioReference spokeswoman Hillary Titus declined to comment or answer any questions about the contracts on behalf of the firm.
Florida is not the firm’s only government customer amid a massive surge in demand for testing across the country. BioReference has had COVID-19 testing agreements with the city of Miami as well as the state of New York.
It’s unclear how much testing the firm has actually done for Florida. The state’s contract database shows no payments to date for the contract issued by the governor’s office, and payments totaling less than $165,000 for the Department of Health (DOH) contract.
The Division of Emergency Management, which is within the EOG, denies any political favoritism when it comes to handing out contracts.
“No one at the Division received a call from the Governor’s Office regarding these vendors, and their political donations do not factor into decisions in any way,” wrote Jason Mahon, Division of Emergency Management (DEM) spokesman. “These vendors were used because they could provide equipment and services that support Florida’s response to COVID-19 and we do not track the political donations or political affiliations of any vendor that does business with the Division of Emergency Management.”
The Florida Department of Health did not answer questions about its own contract with BioReference.
No transparency on COVID contracts
Florida Bulldog first requested copies of both BioReference contracts on May 1, but the state has not provided a single document. The Transparency Florida Act requires both the Executive Office of the Governor and the Florida Department of Health to post copies of all contracts to the state’s contract database within 30 days, but both agencies have failed to do so with the BioReference contracts, among various other month-old contracts.
Neither Mahon nor a spokesman for the Department of Health addressed why the contracts have not been posted publicly.
Another contract winner with connections to DeSantis campaign funds is Physicians Group. The Executive Office of the Governor issued two emergency purchase orders in March and April for hand sanitizer from the firm totaling more than $2 million. The orders were for various sizes. The prices aren’t exactly charitable. For example the cost to the state for an eight-ounce bottle ranged from $7.80 to $8.10.
Sarasota-based Physicians Group is owned by chiropractor Gary Kompothecras, who has given Friends of Ron DeSantis more than $50,000, including $25,000 last October. He has also supported President Donald Trump’s political ambitions, giving Trump Victory more than $25,000 in 2016, along with $2,700 to the Trump campaign.
Gary Kompothecras did not agree to a phone interview with Florida Bulldog. The attorney for Physicians Group, Greg Zitani, did not address questions sent by Florida Bulldog, but stated in an email that, “Dr. Kompothecras provided a much needed product to the state during a time of crisis. As I am sure you are aware, hand sanitizer immediately became a difficult to acquire commodity.”
Dad of a reality show star
Kompothecras is better known for 1-800-ASK-GARY, a medical and attorney referral service for people involved in car accidents. He’s also the father of MTV reality show star Alex Kompothecras, who is a leading cast member on the show “Siesta Key.’’
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported in 2018 that Gary Kompothecras was charged with a DUI after a Manatee County Sheriff’s deputy clocked him going 100 miles per hour on I-75 in a silver Porsche and judged him to be impaired after three field sobriety tests. Prosecutors ended up dropping the DUI charge.
Then there’s Ring Power Corporation, a heavy-equipment firm based in St. Augustine. The company obtained $6.6 million in state contracts to provide heavy duty mobile generators and other equipment since Gov. DeSantis issued his executive order declaring a COVID-19 Public Health Emergency on March 9.
The firm itself has given Friends of Ron DeSantis $35,000. The firm has also given the Republican Party of Florida more than $190,000, including $50,000 last August. The firm’s Chairman and CEO, Randal Ringhaver, has also donated heavily to Republican causes. He gave Trump Victory $100,000 in 2016. He also gave $25,000 to New Republican PAC, which supported Rick Scott’s 2018 Senate run. And back in 2015, he gave DeSantis’ congressional campaign $5,000. The company also has a preexisting state term contract with Florida to provide construction and industrial equipment, though that contract “excludes portable generators.”
Contracts not tied to contributions?
Ring Power did not make Randal Ringhaver available for an interview. Ring Power spokeswoman Sue Miller said the firm’s political contributions “didn’t have any role” in the firm securing state contracts. She explained that the state originally reached out to Caterpillar, the company that actually makes the generators. Caterpillar then reached out to Ring Power as the distributor for north and central Florida. She said the state wanted to “immediately procure” the generators, and “the fact that we had the equipment they needed available” was the key factor.
It’s unclear how exactly the state is selecting vendors for emergency COVID-19 contracts. It’s also unclear what the state is doing to screen vendors, if anything at all. As Florida Bulldog reported last month, the state at one point had an $11.3-million testing agreement with a firm run by a man who is on probation after pleading guilty to two financial felonies last year.
The state also canceled an $11-million contract with a Texas-based lab after a Florida hospital chain canceled its own contract with the firm and raised questions about the reliability of the firm’s tests — allegations the firm has disputed.
And earlier this month, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that the state a major state vendor cut ties with a subcontractor who faced disciplinary action from the state’s board of medicine, and the Tampa Bay Times reported he was once director of a medical clinic that federal prosecutors later tied to the state’s illicit opioid industry.
The state has been awarding so many contracts so fast, Division of Emergency Management spokesman Mahon said, “limited time does not allow for the Division to vet every company’s executive leadership or board of directors.”