Half a Billion Dollars for Medical Gowns: Yarn Maker That Hosted Pence Lands Giant Coronavirus Contract

The contract dwarfs those given to makers of other PPE as well as those working on a vaccine and even most ventilator manufacturers.

Vice President Mike Pence visits the GE Healthcare manufacturing facility last week in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

(CN) — As a curtain-raiser for the 2020 elections, Vice President Mike Pence visited the North Carolina yarn manufacturer Parkdale Mills for a speech about how President Donald Trump’s trade policy would staunch the bleeding of tens of thousands of textile jobs in the state.

“We’re also excited to bring the Republican National Convention back here to North Carolina, a state that the president and I carried in 2016,” Pence had said last May inside the Parkdale factory, standing on a stage framed by a U.S. flag, Parkdale’s corporate logo and boxes of the company’s inventory.

Nearly a year later, Pence now heads the White House coronavirus task force, and Parkdale landed a massive $531.9 million contract to make 60 million gowns for the Department of Homeland Security. That award clocks in as the third largest in a USASpending.gov search for “Covid-19” contracts. 

“Delivery order for 60 million reusable gowns in support of the national emergency declaration for Covid-19,” a description on the April 23 contract states.

At more than half a billion dollars, the massive contract dwarfs those given to all other textile companies listed on the USASpending.gov database for Covid-19, eclipsed only by ventilator manufacturers Philips North America and Hamilton Medical. Parkdale’s contract is more than $100,000 larger than what the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna made on a $430.3 million contract to develop a vaccine.

To compare it against other makers of personal protective equipment, Parkdale’s contract is more than three times the size of the $172.9 contract to 3M to make 190 million N95 masks. Trump publicly attacked 3M over that contract before resorting to the Korean War-era Defense Production Act as leverage to compel production

“We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks,” Trump tweeted on April 2. “‘P Act’ all the way.”

By contrast, the Parkdale contract passed with little fanfare other than an entry in the federal database. Neither the company nor the Department of Homeland Security put out a press release for the award.

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the anti-corruption watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, noted in a phone interview that Pence used his platform at Parkdale to slam the then-ongoing Russia investigation.

“So, could it be a thank you for letting him do that?” Libowitz asked. “Yes, absolutely. We don’t know for sure, but it’s one of those things where more information is certainly needed.”

Pence’s press secretary denied any political favoritism at play.

“Vice President Pence was not involved in the awarding nor aware of the contract at all,” press secretary Katie Miller wrote in an email.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.

The big investment in the Gastonia, North Carolina-based yarn manufacturer came at a key time for the 100-year-old company.

When it covered Pence’s tour of Parkdale last year, the Charlotte Observer noted that North Carolina had been hemorrhaging textile jobs for decades, plummeting from 108,000 jobs in 2000 to 28,000 in 2018. The United States is the world’s second-largest exporter of textile-related products, with fiber, textile and apparel exports topping $30 billion in 2018, according to statistics from the National Council on Textile Organizations.

Pence visited Parkdale at the time to sell workers on the then-nascent idea of a United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a trade deal that he prescribed to staunch the outsourcing of textile jobs out of the country.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi would allow a modified version of that legislation to sail through the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives late last year on the same day she announced plans to impeach Trump, giving the president a bipartisan stamp on major legislation on the same day she recommended his removal from office. 

Courting North Carolina workers is an important part of Trump’s re-election strategy.

“We’ve defined it as a must-win state,” Kelly Sadler, a spokeswoman for the pro-Trump super-PAC America First Action, told the Charlotte Observer last year.

Parkdale’s president Charles Heilig, who has donated to Republican politicians and causes dating back to 1989, is a large contributor to the National Council of Textile Organizations Inc. Political Action Committee, which also leans conservative.

Heilig did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.

The anticipated end date on Parkdale’s gown order is Sept. 14 this year.

Editor’s Note:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Homeland Security branch replied after the publication of this story to a press inquiry. It said the Parkdale contract was one of three to replenish the national stockpile’s supply of gowns. Hanes received a $175 million contract to make 25 million gowns, and Standard Textile received a $41.9 million contract to make 5 million gowns.

Though FEMA’s spokesman said Parkdale received the largest contract because of its “extremely low shipping cost,” the per-gown calculation from the Hanes contract would put an order for a 60 million gowns at $420 million.

The agency did not respond to a follow-up inquiry about the discrepancy.

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