HOW PROFITEERING AND INCOMPETENCE DELAYED N95 MASKS WHILE PEOPLE DIED AT THE VA
Before embarking on a 36-hour tour through an underground of contractors and middlemen trying to make a buck on the nation’s desperate need for masks, entrepreneur Robert Stewart Jr. offered an unusual caveat. “I’m talking with you against the advice of my attorney,” the man in the shiny gray suit, an American Flag button with the word “VETERAN” pinned to his blazer, said as we boarded a private jet Saturday from the executive wing at Dulles International Airport. It remains a mystery why the CEO of Federal Government Experts LLC let me observe his frantic effort to find 6 million N95 respirators and the ultimate unraveling of his $34.5 million deal to supply them to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, where 20 VA staff have died of COVID-19 while the agency waits for masks.
It’s also unclear why the VA gave Stewart’s fledgling business – which had no experience selling medical equipment, no supply chain expertise, and very little credit – an important contract. Or why the VA agreed to pay nearly $5.75 per mask, a 350% markup from the manufacturer’s list price. In the end, after ProPublica asked questions about the deal this week, the VA quickly terminated it and referred the case to its inspector general for investigation. Stewart maintained he was trying to do a public service and plans to tell investigators how he was taken for a ride by “buccaneers and pirates,” the multiple layers of intermediaries, fixers, and lawyers standing between respirator mask producers and front- line workers who are dying without them.
By J. David McSwane
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