Private Contractors Slide Under the Radar as US Cheers Army Corps

One anti-corruption watchdog raised flags over how the government’s biggest contracts for field hospitals in the coronavirus pandemic get awarded.

The National Guard stands in formation at the Jacob Javits Center on March 23, a day after the arena was tapped to serve as a field hospital in New York’s struggle to control the rapidly spreading Covid-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(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.”

She added, “The Congressman was not involved in any discussions about this temporary hospital with anyone at any point in time prior to the contract being awarded.”

A search for the phrase alternate care facility on USSpending.gov produced roughly a half-dozen hits by press time, mostly in the New York area and totaling slightly more than $414 million. Other publicly reported contracts did not appear on the database by press time.

Multiple projects have stopped work, putting a question mark on the federal government’s ambitions to erect health care centers in what were once arenas, hotels, college dorms and convention centers to equip the U.S. pandemic-response arsenal with 15,505 more beds.

Good government groups warn that oversight is especially crucial in times of desperate need.

“There are people who will say that in a time of crisis is not the time to be kind of picking through things, but we think it’s the most important time for oversight because this is when oversight fails,” Libowitz, the CREW spokesman, explained.

Nowhere is this truer than in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, nearing 200,000 confirmed cases and recently crossing the threshold of 10,000 deaths. 

Beyond the Javits Center

By every measure, the Javits Center contract appears to be a success for New York, in terms of value, number of beds and, most importantly, speedy completion for patients in need. 

As of Monday, the Army Corps announced that three of the 53 contracts had been completed: the Javits Center in Manhattan, the TCF Center in Detroit, and a repurposed Quality Inn in Florissant, Missouri. 

But inside Van Cortlandt Park, New York City’s third-largest park, construction has stalled on a promised 200-bed field hospital.

“I am worried that this decision is premature,” New York Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said of the announcement by Parsons Corporation that it stopped work on the $40 million contract.

Parsons claims that the beds may no longer be needed in the area, but a scathing inspector general report shows that the company has a history of leaving government contracts unfinished, completing only six of the 150 health care facilities that the company was awarded $240 million to build in 2004.

A field hospital is built inside SUNY Stony Brook. (Photo by U.S. Army Corp of Engineers via CNS)

Out on Long Island, contractors nabbed much more expensive awards for facilities serving lesser-hit areas. In addition to the Turner contract, Aecom Technical Services nabbed a more than $58 million for 1,024-bed facility at SUNY at Old Westbury.

“One red flag is if numbers are significantly different than expected, if some projects are costing much more then it seems that they should be, that’s a pretty big reason to ask why,” CREW’s Libowitz explained. “Sometimes there it is perfectly normal answer, but sometimes there’s not.”

Turner and Aecom did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Outside of the New York region, Turner was tapped to build an overflow Covid-19 patient facility inside the once-shuttered Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Illinois, and Aecom has two other contracts in Tennessee: one inside Nashville’s Music City Center and the other inside the Gateway Shopping Center in Memphis.

The Army Corps of Engineers anticipates that the SUNY Stony Brook facility will be completed on April 19, and the one at SUNY Old Westbury will be completed on April 24. Each is intended to serve roughly 1,000 patients.

Some of the earliest coronavirus cases in New York cropped up in Westchester, where Haugland Energy Group received a $30 million contract to build a 120-bed facility slated to open on Friday.

What transparency that exists over these facilities comes largely from Army Corps press releases and a U.S. contracting database. 

The Army Corps referred a request for a comprehensive list of facilities by contractors, beds, cost and other information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

All Over the Map 

The first coronavirus-related death in a Maryland prison occurred inside Hagerstown Correctional Facility, where Clark Construction Group obtained a $2.5 million contract to construct tents inside the complex able to accommodate 192 beds.

“Each medical tent has the capacity to treat 10 individuals,” Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Health and Public Safety, said in an email. “We’re working with the Army Corps of Engineers to build these facilities in case we need to treat a large number of inmates. We hope this won’t be the case, but we’ll be ready.”

Clark has a separate contract for a 550-bed facility at the MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island, Illinois, which has been the subject of local news coverage but has not appeared in the federal database.

The Covid-19 pandemic shuttered schools around the country, including The Newark Academy, in Livingston, N.J. (Photo by NICK RUMMELL/Courthouse News Service)

Just outside the New York epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, neighboring New Jersey has reported more than 64,000 confirmed cases, killing more than 2,400 people. 

The Garden State’s National Guard there has taken the lead at the statewide response: a 250-bed facility inside the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus; 500 beds inside the New Jersey Convention Center in Edison; and 250 beds inside the Atlantic City Convention Center.

“The Meadowlands and Edison sites are open with the Atlantic City site coming online within the next week,” Governor Phil Murphy’s spokeswoman Alexandra Altman said in an email.

Other states receiving federal help on alternative care centers include California, Michigan, Tennessee, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois and Florida. The Republican governor of the Sunshine State appeared prominently in an Army Corp press release touting the construction of a 450-bed facility at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

“You know, some of the overflow that’s been done in other parts of the country, initially they wanted them for non-COVID,” Governor Ron DeSantis had said. “This is designed for COVID, so if someone has it, this facility is going to be able to accommodate that.” 

When not boasting about the receipt of federal aid, DeSantis has come under fire for his lax approach to physical-distancing recommendations. The first-term governor was sued for refusing to close Florida’s beaches during spring break, and the Miami Herald reported that his office tried to bully its law firm to squelch transparency over coronavirus records. He declared professional wrestling an essential business in the state, while overriding local officials’ attempts to block religious gatherings where the virus can spread.

None of that seems to have affected the stream of federal dollars. The Army Corps selected the firm Robins & Morton to build the $20.5 million facility in Miami by April 21. 

Among states hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Florida ranks ninth, after Louisiana, which has slightly more confirmed cases but nearly double the number of deaths.

CREW’s Libowitz cited the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria disaster relief as a reason to inspect the contracts closely. 

“You need to look back no further than Puerto Rico, where a major rebuild contract was given to a two-man firm from Whitefish, Montana,” Libowitz said, referring to the $300 million contract to Whitefish Energy to rebuild the storm-battered island’s electrical grid. “It had no ability to actually do the work.”

The Puerto Rican public power company, known as Prepa, withdrew from the contract, which sparked federal and congressional investigations.

“So there are questions about what private companies get awarded, and people do need as much information as they can get to be able to ask those questions,” Libowitz added.

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