A former White House aide won a $3 million federal contract to supply respirator masks to Navajo Nation hospitals in New Mexico and Arizona 11 days after he created a company to sell personal protective equipment in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Zach Fuentes, President Donald Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, secured the deal with the Indian Health Service with limited competitive bidding and no prior federal contracting experience.
The IHS told ProPublica it has found that 247,000 of the masks delivered by Fuentes’ company — at a cost of roughly $800,000 — may be unsuitable for medical use. An additional 130,400, worth about $422,000, are not the type specified in the procurement data, the agency said.
What’s more, the masks Fuentes agreed to provide — Chinese-made KN95s — have come under intense scrutiny from U.S. regulators amid concerns that they offered inadequate protection.
“The IHS Navajo Area Office will determine if these masks will be returned,” the agency said in a statement. The agency said it is verifying Fuentes’ company’s April 8 statement to IHS that all the masks were certified by the Food and Drug Administration, and an FDA spokesperson said the agency cannot verify if the products were certified without the name of the manufacturer.
Hospitals in the Navajo Nation, which spans Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, have been desperate for protective supplies as the numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths have grown quickly. As of Friday, the Navajo Nation reported 4,434 COVID-19 cases and 147 deaths, a crisis that has prompted outcries from members of Congress and demands for increased funding.
Fuentes initiated email contact with officials at IHS, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency said. After the contact, the agency informally solicited prices from a handful of face mask providers and chose Fuentes of the six companies that responded because his firm offered the best price and terms, IHS said. Fuentes also benefited from government procurement rules favoring veteran- and minority-owned businesses, the procurement data shows.
Fuentes said political connections to the Trump White House played no role in his company’s selection. “Nobody referred me from the White House. It was nothing like that,” he said. “Emphatically no.”
The White House did not respond to a question about Fuentes’ contract.
IHS told ProPublica that Fuentes’ company reported that the masks were made in China, but the agency did not specify the manufacturer. Federal contracting records show without explanation that Fuentes refunded $250,000 to the IHS this month, and he said in an interview last week that he gave back money when he procured masks at a slightly reduced cost.
“We went back to IHS and said, ‘We were able to get this cheaper,’” Fuentes said. “We will never gouge our customers.”
Fuentes referred questions about the mask manufacturer and FDA certifications to his consultant, Sia N. Ashok, a business school classmate. In a phone interview, Ashok declined to name the manufacturer because it could violate the company’s contract, she said.
Ashok said the company lived up to the terms of its contract with IHS and has all the FDA certifications it needs in place.
“If the customer or IHS or anyone has any issues with anything, we would be more than happy to replace,” she said.
Fuentes’ contract price of $3.24 per mask is more expensive than the pre-pandemic rate of about $1 per mask, but far less than what some government entities have paid at the height of the crisis. Mask costs can vary widely depending on availability, demand, quality and exact specifications...