By Daniel Ducassi, FloridaBulldog.org
Months after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said contact tracing doesn’t work, his administration has continued to pay millions of dollars in no-bid deals for a COVID-19 contact tracing app made by a company with ties to a prominent, billionaire Republican donor and represented by an influential Tallahassee lobbyist.
“I think we have to admit that contact tracing has just not worked,” DeSantis asserted in March 2021. “I think it’s largely been ineffective.”
Not long after the governor spoke, however, the Florida Department of Health inked a $6.7 million deal with Twenty Labs to continue providing a contact tracing app for the state called Healthy Together, records from Florida’s government contract database show. State officials made the first payment to the company for $550,676 on Sept. 17, 2021. The final two payments under that contract, totaling almost $1.2 million, were made on May 20 and June 1 of this year.
A more recent contract worth $400,000 shows the state paid the company another $200,000 on June 15.
Neither the governor’s office nor the Florida Department of Health responded to multiple requests for comment about why the administration continued to sign new contracts worth millions of dollars for a service the governor said does not work. The Florida Department of Health has also not provided copies of the contracts, nor has it posted copies of them to the public contract database as required by state law.
The DeSantis administration previously signed more than $4 million in other no-bid contracts related to “contact tracing” software, despite Florida never having done business with the company before – and despite a rocky rollout of its app in Utah.
DESANTIS AND PELTZ
The CEO of Twenty Labs is Darren “Diesel” Peltz, the son of hedge fund billionaire Nelson Peltz.
Twenty Labs originally registered its corporate headquarters with the state of Florida on the 41st floor of 280 Park Ave. in Manhattan. That’s 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.
The elder Peltz is a well-known backer of former President Donald 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.
He later expressed regret for voting for Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot that breached the U.S. Capitol.
Florida lobbyist registration records show that one of Twenty Labs’ lobbyists is Fred Karlinsky, a lobbyist and lawyer with the Greenberg Traurig law firm in Fort Lauderdale and Tallahassee.
Karlinsky was among the entourage of lobbyists who accompanied DeSantis on his trip to Israel in 2019.
Karlinsky is also chairman of the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, which nominates shortlists of potential Florida Supreme Court justices for the governor to choose from. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the cost, the Twenty Labs app’s “contact tracing” functionality is more limited than the apps that 24 other states have used; those apps take advantage of an exposure notification system jointly developed by Google and Apple. Florida does not provide support for the exposure notification system, and the Florida Department of Health did not provide any explanation for why.
The federal Government Accountability Office released a report in September reviewing the contact tracing apps used by those 24 states.
The data collected in the report underscored the unusually high price tag of Florida’s app. Among nine sample states GAO officials worked with, app development costs ranged from freely provided by a nonprofit entity to $700,000. Marketing costs ranged from $350,000 to $3.2 million.
Total payments to Twenty Labs for the contact tracing app have amounted to $10,585,569.87, according to online state fiscal records.
TWENTY LABS’ CONTACT TRACING APP
The state had originally given the firm no-bid contracts by using a DeSantis emergency executive order for the COVID-19 pandemic that suspended normal requirements to competitively solicit bids. In its more recent contracts, the administration has claimed that the contact tracing app is a “health service,” which provides a different exception to the competitive solicitation requirements in state law.
State lawmakers wrote when they passed the law requiring competitive bidding for big state contracts that “such competition reduces the appearance and opportunity for favoritism and inspires public confidence that contracts are awarded equitably and economically.”
The two most recent contracts came after FDOH agreed to shell out $449,566 as part of a settlement agreement to continue paying the company for the contact tracing app after the company’s previous $4.8 million contract with the state expired.
A letter attached to the settlement agreement notes that the state began negotiating in June 2021 with the company to continue using the contact tracing app, but the previous contract had expired. FDOH then authorized Twenty Labs to “provide services without a purchase order in place,” the letter from deputy FDOH general counsel Christine Lamia states.
FDOH signed its $6.7 million contact tracing app contract with Twenty Labs after that and started paying the company in September.
Representatives for Twenty Labs did not answer questions about its recent contracts with the state of Florida.
John Carter, a contracted public relations representative for the company, wrote in an email to Florida Bulldog that FDOH and the Florida Division of Emergency Management “engaged Twenty Labs to support thousands of workers and millions of Florida residents. The platform has been used to deliver over 30M (million) diagnostic test results, supported follow-on health and safety processes for over 500K residents, and received over 200K reviews across the App & Play Stores with an average of 4.9/5 Stars.”