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Maryland spending board declines to approve millions in coronavirus contracts

Maryland's Board of Public Works declined to approve more than $200 million worth of emergency contracts awarded to companies for the state's coronavirus response, saying more information was needed. Here, 27 ventilators from Blue Flame Medical are delivered last month. The state and Blue Flame are in a dispute over the contract.
Maryland's Board of Public Works declined to approve more than $200 million worth of emergency contracts awarded to companies for the state's coronavirus response, saying more information was needed. Here, 27 ventilators from Blue Flame Medical are delivered last month. The state and Blue Flame are in a dispute over the contract. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s spending board declined Wednesday to approve hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency spending on the state’s coronavirus response.

Members of the Board of Public Works said they have too many questions and not enough information to decide whether the emergency contracts were appropriate. They ordered state officials to return to the next board meeting in two weeks with more information about the contracts.

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“We’re just protecting the taxpayers here,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat and member of the three-person board.

Because of the state of emergency related to the coronavirus pandemic, typical state procurement procedures — such as seeking competitive bids — are suspended. Emergency contracts must be reported to the state Board of Public Works within 45 days.

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Board members declined to approve more than 60 contracts worth more than $200 million and instructed officials to come back with more details about the contracts, such as purchase orders.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a Democrat and board member, said there simply wasn’t enough information provided in order to make decisions on the contracts. Since federal financial aid will be used to pay for some of the contracts, it’s likely that the federal government will follow up to make sure the contracts are appropriate, she noted.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said that to maintain the board’s credibility, “we do need to see as much information as possible.”

“We have to make sure that we have all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed,” said Rutherford, a Republican who chaired the meeting in place of Gov. Larry Hogan.

Maryland, like all states, rushed to buy scarce supplies such as tests, ventilators and masks from unfamiliar suppliers as the coronavirus spread across the nation and the world.

One contract that was up for approval was $9 million for the much-publicized purchase of 500,000 tests from Lab Genomics, a South Korean company.

The Hogan administration has acknowledged it initially lacked supplies needed to use the tests, and has not said directly whether any of the tests actually have been used.

Another contract that was up for approval Wednesday involved buying $14 million worth of KN95 masks from Coast to Coast Strategies, a Washington political consulting firm that employs former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a Republican.

Coast to Coast has provided more than 3.5 million of the 5 million masks that the state ordered, according to state documents. The price per mask works out to $2.80 each, which is less than what several other companies charged the state for the same model of mask.

The Coast to Coast contract was removed from the agenda at the start of the meeting, before board members deferred voting on the full list.

At times, the state has run into problems with contracts, such as a disputed contract with Blue Flame Medical, a company formed by political operatives in March. The state paid Blue Flame half up front for a $12.542 million deal for 110 ventilators and 1.5 million masks.

Maryland canceled the contract after not receiving the goods for weeks, and asked the state’s attorney general to investigate. Blue Flame has challenged the cancellation and delivered 27 ventilators a couple of weeks ago.

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