May 27, 2020

Members of congress want answers on $3 million contract for possibly substandard masks for Navajo Nation

Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

Members of Congress from New Mexico and Arizona sought answers about a $3 million contract given to a former White House staffer to supply masks to the Navajo Nation. The masks may be substandard, as the Navajo Nation deals with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the country.

“The IHS facilities serving the Tribe are in dire need of PPE to combat the virus and ensure medical personnel are protected from potential exposure,” the lawmakers wrote. “Accordingly, we’re also concerned by reports that the federal contract to supply PPE to the Navajo IHS Service Area was awarded to a company established by a former senior official in the White House with limited competitive bidding and no prior federal contracting experience.”

Update: Masks sold by former White House official to Navajo hospitals don’t meet FDA standards

The letter, led by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, requests a number of answers from Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, the Director of the Indian Health Service. 

The Navajo Nation spreads across parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. As of Tuesday, Navajo Nation health officials had confirmed 4,842 COVID-19 cases and 158 deaths related to the disease.

It comes after a story by ProPublica last week on the contract, which was awarded to Zach Fuentes, a former deputy chief of staff for President Donald Trump. 

Federal oversight

On Tuesday, a leading Democratic lawmaker questioned the Department of Health and Human Services principal deputy inspector general Christi Grimm during a U.S. House Oversight Committee hearing about the contract even if IHS opted against such an investigation.

U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia, told Yahoo! News that the committee would investigate the contract. Connolly chairs the Subcommittee on Government Operations and told the website that his subcommittee and a subcommittee on coronavirus run by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, would likely lead the investigation.

Grimm did not say one way or another if she would investigate the matter. 

She has faced criticism from President Donald Trump from her office’s report on the lack of supplies and personal protective equipment for hospitals; Trump nominated a replacement for Grimm three weeks later; the replacement has not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. 

Grimm told the committee she would remain independent, even as Trump has replaced other Inspectors General throughout the administration.

The members of Congress want to know the circumstances behind the decision to award the contract to Zach Fuentes LLC, a company set up less than two weeks before winning the bid, what work IHS did to verify that the KN95 masks supplied by Zach Fuentes LLC were up to U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards, how many masks have been distributed and more.

U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Xochitl Torres Small also signed onto the letter, along U.S. Sen. Kysten Sinema of Arizona and Arizona U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva, Ruben Gallego and Tom O’Halleran. 

All are Democrats.

Copies of the letter were also forwarded to Grimm, U.S. Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan and Pandemic Response Accountability Committee Executive Director Bob Westbrooks.

“As Tribes in New Mexico and Arizona continue to battle this deadly virus now and into the future, it is critical that IHS follows all federal acquisition procedures to ensure the facilities that serve Tribes receive quality materials and supplies they need to keep patients and personnel safe,” the lawmakers wrote. “We look forward to your prompt response.”