Reps. Ruben Gallego, Tom O'Halleran blast deal that led to improper masks being sent to Navajo Nation
Several of Arizona's congressional Democrats are denouncing a $3 million contract given to a former Trump administration official who has provided substandard or defective respirator masks to the Navajo Nation, calling for an investigation of the matter.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who chairs a House subcommittee on indigenous people, said the contract, given to a former staffer who set up a company less than two weeks before winning the deal, is reflective of a larger issue.
"It's symptomatic of two big problems with this administration. No. 1, their treatment of our Native American communities. Since this administration got here, they have been the most anti-Native American administration in modern times," Gallego said. "But two, the corruption that exists within the Trump administration. For somebody who has zero experience with (personal protective equipment) and has zero experience with government contracting, ... shows you a bigger problem."
The investigative news website ProPublica brought the contract to light, finding Zach Fuentes, President Donald Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, formed a company in early April and 11 days later won the limited-bidding contract with the Indian Health Service. The Navajo Nation has been one of the hardest-hit areas of the country by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The contract was to provide specialized respirator masks for use in Navajo hospitals, but many of the masks don't meet standards set by the Food and Drug Administration's standards for use in health care settings.
Fuentes told ProPublica he received no special treatment in winning the contract. Records show he refunded $250,000 to the IHS as he found supplies at a less costly rate.
Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., whose district includes much of the Navajo Nation, said he remains troubled that the contracting process throughout the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been fraught with problems.
"It was obvious from this incident that the quality issue was a problem. That's why we should be having inspections on this stuff," he said, adding that the government should have centralized standards and purchasing.
"I clearly don't understand how you put together a business in 11 days and get a $3 million contract when you're first starting up your business and not to have had some insight. We have a contract process that needs to be followed," O'Halleran said.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight of tribal affairs, joined a letter sent earlier this week to the Government Accountability Office by Gallego and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., seeking an investigation.
“Instead of giving the Navajo Nation the assistance they need, this Administration continues to neglect tribes in dire need of masks in a healthcare system whose resources were already stretched thin,” Grijalva said Friday. “We cannot accept cronyism as a legitimate way to determine who gets an essential government contract—especially in a pandemic. That’s why I’ve joined my colleagues to call for an investigation into this matter.”
The letter sent by lawmakers said in part:
"The distribution of unsuitable and ineffective equipment to the Navajo Nation is particularly disturbing given the scale and severity of the outbreak the Nation is currently battling in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the severe supply shortages they have reported."
The letter added, "We are also deeply concerned that Mr. Fuentes’ relationship to the White House played an inappropriate role in the awarding of this contract."