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Maryland Comptroller Franchot calls for independent audit into state COVID spending

Maryland’s chief financial officer called on state lawmakers to appoint an independent, bipartisan commission to conduct an audit of all state and federal dollars that have been spent on relief for the coronavirus pandemic.

In a Thursday letter, addressed to Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, Franchot raised concerns about the impact of the public health crisis on low-income earners and small businesses at the expense of corporate entities who went on to make millions.

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“I believe we urgently need this independent commission to monitor and investigate the use of such large sums of taxpayer dollars to ensure that the public treasury is protected in the future and accounted for in the past,” Franchot said.

He called for the audit to assess how much federal and state relief went to Maryland residents and small businesses; account for the amount of federal and state relief that went to fraudsters who used stolen financial data to defraud the U.S. and Maryland treasuries; and execute an examination of pandemic profiteering by national and Maryland-based companies.

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It comes as the state health department faces questions for its use of at least two no-bid, emergency contracts related to improving the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine in Maryland. The cost of the two contracts, one with consulting firm Ernst & Young and the other with Digital Mobile Innovations, or DMI, could reach about $46 million.

Franchot’s letter also makes an explicit reference to Emergent BioSolutions, a Maryland-based contractor that has been working with Johnson & Johnson on manufacturing its COVID-19 vaccine at its East Baltimore plant. The New York Times reported over the weekend that the federal government paid Emergent $626 million last year alone for products to fight a terrorist attack using anthrax, taking resources away from other needs of the National Strategic Stockpile.

“Emergent BioSolutions ... used the strategic national stockpile like a corporate ATM machine and left the entire nation further vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis,” Franchot said. “Emergent represents a clear example of unacceptable, reckless, and irresponsible corporate behavior. This is precisely what I mean by pandemic profiteering.”

Emergent called the Times article “misleading” Monday.

“Emergent feels strongly the U.S. government should fully fund preparedness for a wide range of threats, including pandemics and bioterrorism, and that choosing one over the other, or to partially fund everything at a low level, leaves the American public dangerously exposed,” the company said.

It added that Emergent “is one of the very few companies that has invested in pandemic preparedness and bioterrorism, and the country has been better prepared to respond to COVID-19 because of it, leading to our ability to rapidly ramp up the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines.”

Spokespeople from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s office, as well as Ferguson’s and Jones’ offices, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, a state legislative audit is already evaluating the Hogan administration’s acquisition of COVID-19 tests from a South Korean company, plus the purchase of masks and ventilators from a politically connected vendor, the state’s acting health secretary said in December in front of the Maryland Board of Public Works.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

This story will be updated.

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