The Indian Health Service Wants To Return 1 Million KN95 Masks It Bought From A Former White House Official

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump tours a Honeywell International Inc. factory producing N95 masks during his first trip since widespread COVID-19 related lockdowns went into effect May 5, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona... TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump tours a Honeywell International Inc. factory producing N95 masks during his first trip since widespread COVID-19 related lockdowns went into effect May 5, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
June 25, 2020 3:12 p.m.

This story first appeared at ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

The Indian Health Service, which purchased Chinese-made KN95 masks from a former Trump White House official through a $3 million contract, is now trying to return the masks but facing resistance, the agency told ProPublica.

The contractor, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Zach Fuentes, “refused this request and submitted a certified claim for payment” instead, the agency said.

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A lawyer for Fuentes’ firm, Benjamin Keime, said in an email to ProPublica that the company is insisting on payment because it “fulfilled all of its obligations to IHS under the contract.”

Government agencies have been under intense pressure to buy protective equipment to guard employees against the coronavirus. In their haste, several agencies have spent millions of dollars on Chinese-made masks without knowing who made them. Without those details, it can be hard to assess whether the masks filter as many dangerous particles as advertised.

ProPublica reported last month that Fuentes received a contract to provide 1 million KN95 respirator masks just 11 days after he created his company, Zach Fuentes LLC. The IHS later told ProPublica that the masks it bought from Fuentes do not meet Food and Drug Administration standards for use in health care settings.

Fuentes previously told ProPublica that political connections to the Trump White House played no role in his company’s selection for the contract, which was granted with limited competitive bidding.

The U.S.-based agent originally listed for two of the Chinese companies from which Fuentes procured masks, CCTC Service Inc., is named as the representative for nearly 1,600 devices listed with the FDA this year. In a federal court complaint filed June 5 against another Chinese mask manufacturer, King Year Printing and Packaging Co. Ltd., by the Justice Department, an FDA special agent said that there is “probable cause to believe CCTC is a fictitious corporation.”

Several members of Congress have demanded investigations into the Fuentes contract, and the Government Accountability Office plans to review the deal, a spokesman said last week.

“After completing inspection of the product, the Indian Health Service sent a letter to the contractor proposing to return the masks through a no-cost termination,” the agency said in a statement on Wednesday evening. “The contractor refused this request and submitted a certified claim for payment. The Indian Health Service will continue to work with the contractor and the HHS Office of the General Counsel to resolve this issue.”

Keime said that IHS originally accepted all the masks in writing on May 22, the same day ProPublica published its first story on the contract, and did not try to return them until June 10. Fuentes’ firm has offered to replace any defective masks, Keime said.

“Yet, to date, almost two months after the first shipment was received, IHS has not identified a single defect or flaw in the masks,” Keime said. “Instead, it seeks to cancel the order for what appear to be political reasons.”

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