By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide Grand Jury to investigate “crimes and wrongdoing committed against Floridians related to the COVID-19 vaccine.”
But if the 18 grand jurors and the prosecutors who will shepherd them do an actual investigation, the governor’s request should backfire unpleasantly on him and his apparent hopes for higher political office.
That’s because DeSantis – who once championed COVID-19 vaccines – seems to believe the Grand Jury should target for indictment scheming federal public-health officials who helped develop, promote and distribute the vaccines “purported to prevent COVID-19 infection, symptoms and transmission,” as well as Pfizer and Moderna corporate executives for fraudulently stoking public anxiety and fear to sell their vaccines, while downplaying associated risks. (Vaccine manufacturer Johnson & Johnson isn’t mentioned in the governor’s petition.)
In support, the governor’s petition cites several foreign studies and a Florida Health Department study overseen by controversial Surgeon General Joseph Lapado that were said to have found certain, unspecified increases in heart damage and death in patients following COVID vaccinations.
The petition does not mention that more than 1 million Americans have died from infection by COVID-19, or that deaths have declined dramatically since the vaccines became available.
DESANTIS CAMPAIGN WAR CHESTS PROFITED
But, as Florida Bulldog and reporter Daniel Ducassi previously and exclusively reported, the real COVID mischief in Florida metastasized out of the governor’s office.
DeSantis’s political war chests profited handsomely after he used his emergency powers on March 9, 2020 to suspend the law’s competitive solicitation process and hand out tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in no-bid COVID contracts to a blend of political cronies, a crook and wealthy Republican donors. Those donors, in turn, helped fuel his and his party’s political campaigns with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions.
Two noteworthy examples of what smacks of pay for play: Palm Beach hedge-fund billionaire Nelson Peltz and Miami healthcare baron Phillip Frost.
Peltz’s son, Darren “Diesel” Peltz has a company called Twenty Labs, located at the same address as Nelson Peltz’s Trian Partners in New York City. It collected $4.25 million in 2020 with no-bid Florida contracts to license its “Healthy Together” software and mobile contact tracing application. In July, Florida Bulldog reported Florida inked a $6.7 million deal with Twenty Labs to continue providing its contract tracing app just months after DeSantis said contact tracing doesn’t work.
Nelson Peltz did not contribute to DeSantis. But he’s a longtime, major Republican donor who in 2022 alone contributed $854,000 to Republican candidates and causes, most notably the Republican National Committee. His wife, Claudia, kicked in another $46,000, with most of it going to the Republican National Committee.
PHIL FROST GAVE TO DESANTIS, GOT FROM DESANTIS
Frost is a major contributor to DeSantis. And his OPKO Health, via its subsidiary BioReference Laboratories, snagged a pair of no-bid COVID-19 testing contracts worth $2.5 million starting in March 2020. Four months later, OPKO’s stock more than doubled from less than $2-a-share to over $5.
BioReference had announced in March 2020 that it was getting into coronavirus testing. Florida Bulldog’s Francisco Alvarado reported the following month that Hindenburg Research, a firm that investigates stock scams, warned that the news was a marketing ploy to drive up OPKO’s sagging stock price at a time the company was experiencing dire financial woes. It’s “an obvious coronavirus (stock) pump,” Hindenburg wrote on Twitter.
One year earlier, Frost was fined $5.6 million by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and permanently barred from participating in penny stock offerings, with some exceptions, for participating in a “pump and dump” scheme involving a trio of low-cost healthcare stocks.
In 2018, Frost gave the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee $75,000, plus another $2,700 to the governor’s election campaign directly. In August 2022, Frost donated another $100,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis, state election records show. In 2022 alone, he and his wife, Patricia, also gave $586,000 to various national Republican causes and candidates.
Friends of Ron DeSantis pulled down another $10,000 on May 5, 2021 from a Sunrise company that the DeSantis administration gave four no-bid COVID contracts to worth $103.4 million. Management Health Systems, which does business as MedPro Healthcare Staffing, began receiving payments from the state in August 2020.
MedPro has been repeatedly accused in court of exploiting the foreign healthcare workers it supplies to U.S. hospitals and healthcare facilities. Gov. DeSantis spoke out forcefully against ‘’labor trafficking” at Florida’s 2019 Human Trafficking Summit, but his office had nothing to say when Florida Bulldog’s Ducassi sought to ask him about MedPro in May 2021.
One year ago, in December 2021, Management Health Systems paid $4.4 million to settle a class-action suit in Broward Circuit Court claiming it profited from the “forced labor” of foreign workers under a system of “indentured servitude.” There were 1,392 class members. The company admitted no wrongdoing, according to court records.
CLEAR CHOICE GETS COVID-19 CONTRACTS, TRIPLES CONTRIBUTIONS TO DESANTIS
Florida’s Agency for Healthcare Administration (AHCA), whose leader secretary Simone Marstiller was appointed by DeSantis, partnered in 2020 with another problematic company, Melbourne-based Clear Choice Health Care, to provide COVID-19 isolation centers at a trio of facilities it managed. The state’s deal with Jacksonville’s 146-bed Dolphin Pointe Health Care alone was worth millions to Clear Choice.
For example, state paperwork showed that AHCA agreed to pay Dolphin Pointe for Medicaid patients at the normal provider rate of $261 per day plus $325 per day, for a total of $586. The state also agreed to pay even if the beds were empty under rates that would allow Dolphin Pointe to receive a minimum of $38,000 per day for every day it remained open with empty beds.
Gov. DeSantis personally appeared at Dolphin Pointe in May 2020 to tout the opening of the state’s “unique partnership” with Clear Choice – a company that federal authorities had accused of engaging in a “kickback” scheme involving a sham medical director and phony paperwork. Clear Choice paid $1.5 million in 2019 to settle the allegations without admitting wrongdoing.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Clear Choice is a veteran donor to Republicans. It gave more than $100,000 to the Republican Party of Florida since 2012. In August 2019, it also gave $5,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis. Since obtaining its AHCA COVID contracts, Clear Choice tripled its giving to Friends of Ron DeSantis to $15,000, made in a single donation on Dec. 31, 2020, records show.
CITIZENS PROPERTY INSURANCE CHAIR GOT FAT NO-BID CONTRACT
Another significant Florida Republican donor – though not to DeSantis – who got a fat no-bid contract was the chairman of the board of governors of Citizens Property Insurance, the state-owned insurer of last resort. Adrien “Bo” Rivard III was appointed by Florida Cabinet member and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.
Rivard runs Panama City-based Consolidated Disaster Services. CDS obtained at least seven agreements with the state between March and July 2020 to supply personal protective equipment and other medical equipment worth more than $10 million. Rivard is no longer on the board of Citizens.
Those weren’t the only dubious COVID contracts. Sarasota-based Physicians Group was issued two emergency, no-bid purchase orders totaling more than $2 million in March and April 2020 for hand sanitizer. The cost to the state for an eight-ounce bottle: $7.80 to $8.10.
Physicians Group is owned by chiropractor Gary Kompothecras. In 2018-2019, Kompothecras gave Friends of Ron DeSantis more than $50,000. He donated another $10,000 on May 3, 2022.
St. Augustine’s Ring Power Corporation was friendly with Ron DeSantis, both before and after obtaining $6.6 million in no-bid COVID-19 emergency contracts to provide heavy-duty mobile generators and other equipment. Chairman and CEO Randal Ringhaver’s company gave Friends of Ron DeSantis $35,000 in October 2018 during his race to become governor.
On March 29, 2021, Ring Power contributed another $100,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis. Then, last July 18, Ring became even friendlier with DeSantis by delivering an additional $25,000, state records show.
CROOK GETS NO-BID COVID 19 CONTRACT, MOSKOWITZ GOES TO CONGRESS
Then there’s Brandt Beal, CEO of Indur Services. He didn’t donate a cent to DeSantis or any Republicans or Democrats. The Texas crook obtained a $11.3 million deal on April 22, 2020 to provide Florida with COVID-19 testing and supplies by duping DeSantis’s top emergency management official, Jared Moskowitz, into personally signing off on the deal.
The deal called for Indur Services to perform up to 10,000 tests per day for Florida. DeSantis bragged in a press conference that day about the contract.
But the year before, in 2019, Beal had pleaded guilty in Texas to two financial felonies related to insurance-fraud schemes and was sentenced to 10 years of probation in each case. Along the way, Texas Department of Insurance investigators described him as a “con artist.” Moskowitz and Florida’s Division of Management Services missed or ignored all that before signing on the dotted line.
About a week later, after Florida Department of Health General Counsel Louise St. Laurent emailed other DeSantis administration lawyers to inform them that Indur had lied to them about the firm’s qualifications, the state canceled the contract, but still purchased $2.2 million worth of testing supplies from Indur.
Moskowitz hung up on Ducassi and did not respond to emailed questions about what pre-contract efforts he took to check out Indur, or why the state continued to do business with Indur even though the company had misrepresented itself.
Moskowitz, a Democrat from Coral Springs, was elected to Congress last November.
While the DeSantis administration was handing out hundreds of no-bid COVID-related contracts, it flouted state contract transparency laws and stonewalled public records requests.
Florida law 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, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, established the state’s online contract tracking database and also required disclosure of other basic information about government contracts.
Reporter Ducassi repeatedly asked the governor’s top staff including Division of Emergency Management Director Moskowitz, to explain why contracts were not being posted. To this day, no explanation had been provided and contract information remains missing from the website.