By Daniel Ducassi, FloridaBulldog.org
Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration has given more than $4 million in no-bid, coronavirus-related state contracts to a New York City-based social media startup co-founded and led by the son of a South Florida billionaire and prominent supporter of President Donald Trump.
The Florida Department of Health signed a $2.75 million contract with Twenty Labs, LLC in June to provide the state a software license for a “Healthy Together COVID-19 contact tracing customer relationship management platform,” basically software that supports the state’s contact tracing efforts.
More recently, the governor’s office signed a $1.5 million contract with Twenty Labs, which operates a COVID-19 mobile phone app called Healthy Together, to provide a “contract (sic) tracing application,” according to the state’s contract database.
In both cases, the company was chosen without the competitive solicitation process that state law normally requires for such large contracts. Both no-bid COVID contracts are listed in the state’s contract database as among Florida’s numerous “emergency purchases” per an emergency executive order from Republican DeSantis that allows state agencies to suspend normal purchasing regulations.
The CEO of Twenty Labs is Darren “Diesel” Peltz, known for his social media app Twenty, and for being the son of hedge fund billionaire Nelson Peltz. Twenty Lab’s corporate headquarters on the 41st floor of 280 Park Ave. in Manhattan is also the address of Nelson Peltz’s Trian Partners, a $6 billion investment firm with large holdings in companies like Procter & Gamble, Comcast and Wendy’s.
Peltz fundraiser for Trump
The elder Peltz is a well-known backer and longtime friend of Trump as well as a major Republican donor: He gave $250,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2020, along with $75,000 to Trump Victory over three payments in 2016 and 2017 and more than $10,000 in maxed-out contributions to the Trump campaign itself. His wife, Claudia Peltz, also gave $250,000 to the RNC in 2020.
Nelson Peltz even hosted a high-dollar fundraiser for Trump at his waterfront estate in Palm Beach earlier this year. DeSantis got up and left the fundraiser before Trump spoke, and that became a point of contention between the governor and the president, POLITICO reported in March.
And the Washington Post reported in 2017 that a top aide to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin flew on Peltz’s private jet to Palm Beach.
The Florida Department of Health paid out the full $2.75 million on Twenty Lab’s contract in September. The Executive Office of the Governor has paid out nearly $700,000 on its contract with Twenty Labs, including $200,000 since Florida Bulldog started asking questions about the no-bid COVID contracts.
Florida wasn’t the first state to contract with Twenty for a contact tracing app. Utah’s no-bid COVID contract with the company generated controversy in the Beehive State amid a bumpy roll out of its Healthy Together app there.
“It didn’t go well,” wrote New York Times tech writer Shira Ovide.
Why contract with Twenty?
For one, the Salt Lake Tribune reported in July that the app ended a key function used for contact tracing: tracking user location. Few users opted-in to the app’s GPS location tracking out of privacy concerns.
It’s unclear why Florida contracted with Twenty for a contact tracing app amid the problems with the Utah rollout. Florida also had the option of using the exposure notification code developed jointly by Apple and Google, which could have been incorporated into the Department of Health’s existing StrongerThanC19 App that currently serves as little more than a survey platform.
The Apple/Google code aims to get around privacy concerns about location tracking by using anonymized Bluetooth data to track when phones have been near each other.
More than a dozen other states — including Alabama, California, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, New York and Washington — have taken advantage of the code.
The Florida interface of the Healthy Together app, which was rolled out last month, does not have any location tracking function for contact tracing, nor does it have any similar function to the Apple/Google exposure notification code.
It does allow users to see their test results based on their phone number, and prompts people who test positive to take a contact tracing survey. It also provides some links to the Department of Health website related to COVID-19.
Twenty Lab’s Healthy Together app has gotten plugs on the Today Show and from the White House by Vice President Mike Pence.
‘Not what was asked’
Jared Allgood, Twenty’s co-founder and chief strategy officer, told Florida Bulldog in a phone interview, “We’re capable of delivering Apple and Google within the Healthy Together app, but that is not what was asked of us by the Florida Department of Health.”
He said the survey function of the app serves to cut down on the time the state’s contact tracers need to spend on the phone with people who test positive.
Andie Weissman, a contracted public relations representative for the company, said Healthy Together has more than 300,000 registered Florida users. The company would not provide a copy of the contact tracing survey, deferring to the Florida Department of Health, which likewise did not provide a copy of the survey.
Jason Mahon, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management (DEM) who also serves as spokesman for the Florida Department of Health (DOH), did not answer any questions about the contracts. Similarly, the governor’s spokesman, Fred Piccolo, would not answer any questions about the contracts.
Some of the questions sought basic information, such as who signed the contract and when. In addition, neither Piccolo nor Mahon addressed what role the fact the CEO of the company is the son of a prominent GOP donor and Trump friend and ally played in the decisions to give Twenty more than $4 million in state contracts. Nor did they address why the state is not using the Apple and Google technology for contact tracing efforts.
Distance from no-bid COVID contracts
Emergency Management director Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat the incoming Biden administration is reportedly considering to head up the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sought to distance himself from the contract in an email to Florida Bulldog.
“This is a DOH contact,” he wrote about the contract that’s identified in the state’s contract database as belonging to the Executive Office of the Governor, the parent agency of DEM. “DEM was not involved in selection or administration of contract.”
However, Moskowitz’s claim conflicts with those made by Twenty’s Allgood, who said, “that contract was with both FLDOH and the [Division] of Emergency Management, so the people at FLDOH and the [Division] of Emergency Management both spoke to us about doing the mobile application.”
The state has not made the governor’s office’s contract available in response to a public records request. The DOH contract, which is available on the state’s contract tracking website, was signed by Darren Peltz using an email tied to Trian Partners, his father’s investment firm.
Twenty’s public relations representatives said the younger Peltz does not work for Trian Partners even though his company is based at Trian’s New York City headquarters, that the email address tied to the firm was the result of a clerical error, and that Trian Partners is not invested in Twenty.
They declined, however, to comment on whether Nelson Peltz has a financial interest in Twenty.