(CN) — In a sea of data delays and dubious prophecy, the reputation for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to inspire rare bipartisan confidence among government institutions is weathering the coronavirus storm.
When the levee breaks, when superstorms knock out power on a vulnerable island, or when a deadly pandemic overruns the nation’s hospitals, the Army Corps’ record for rescuing U.S. cities — red, blue and purple — has few equals.
And for the private-sector partners of the agency, that sea of goodwill has also meant less scrutiny.
A Courthouse News investigation shows that the vast majority of the $1.7 billion set aside for alternate care facilities, as the Pentagon calls them, have been awarded to contractors without transparency, while questions abound about some of the awards whose details are public.
Split among 53 mission assignments, as they are known in Army Corps jargon, each contract averages out to about $32 million. Against such figures, the crown jewel of the field-hospital facilities was bestowed at the Javits Center in New York for the relative bargain price of $30.5 million.
Other contracts have been much steeper, like the lavish award conferred on a contractor in the Long Island congressional district of Representative Lee Zeldin, an ally of the president who serves on a bipartisan coronavirus task force spearheaded by three members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In Zeldin’s district, Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York system, is getting a 1,024-bed hospital at a price tag of $50 million. Turner Construction is the contractor for that annex, one of three contracts totaling $136 million that make it the top recipient of awards, according to search results on USSpending.gov for alternative care facilities.
Zeldin, a three-term Republican running for re-election this year got a personal shout-out last week at one of President Donald Trump’s daily press briefings on the Covid-19 pandemic.
“And at the request of Congressman Lee Zeldin, out in Long Island, we will also be delivering another 200,000 N95 masks to Suffolk County, where they need it very badly,” Trump said on April 6. “So, we’re getting that out on an emergency basis.”
The East Hampton Star reported that Zeldin has a direct line to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom the president tapped for a key role in the federal Covid-19 response.
Zeldin personally touted the Stony Brook contract, and its size, in a March 30 statement that put this Saturday as the facility’s expected go-live date.
“This injection of federal funding directly into our local community to increase hospital bed capacity at Stony Brook University is the latest aid secured through this bilateral cooperation and means that more Long Islanders will receive the lifesaving care they need,” the congressman said.
Stacked up against the Javits Center contract, however, the cost of the SUNY Stony Brook has drawn howls from an anti-corruption watchdog.
“I think that this certainly raises the question of whether the biggest contracts are being directed based on connections to members of the task force,” Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said in a phone interview.
Zeldin's spokeswoman Katie Vincentz said that the temporary hospital came at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's direct request to the federal government.
"The governor chose Stony Brook University as the site for the Suffolk County hospital," Vincentz said in an email. "The Congressman's first comments publicly or privately came after Stony Brook was selected as the site, and the Congressman's primary message has been to applaud the cooperation on this between the different levels of government with regards to increasing hospital bed capacity."