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Korean COVID-19 test kits: Why can’t Maryland’s governor admit mistakes? | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan and First Lady Yumi Hogan stood on the tarmac at BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport to welcome a Korean Air plane carrying LabGun COVID-19 PCR test kits from LabGenomics. It was the first-ever direct freight flight from Incheon Airport to BWI. (Handout/Baltimore Sun)
Gov. Larry Hogan and First Lady Yumi Hogan stood on the tarmac at BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport to welcome a Korean Air plane carrying LabGun COVID-19 PCR test kits from LabGenomics. It was the first-ever direct freight flight from Incheon Airport to BWI. (Handout/Baltimore Sun)

One year ago, Gov. Larry Hogan made what might be generously described as a high-profile mistake when his administration cut a deal to purchase 500,000 coronavirus test kits from a South Korean company, LabGenomics, for $9 million. They did not work as expected, had not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and most were probably never used. The state then spent another $2.5 million to secure a second batch of workable kits. This is detailed in a report released last week by the Office of Legislative Audits, a nonpartisan auditing team within the Maryland General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services that operates similarly to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It was surely an embarrassing moment for the governor and the administration, but not an entirely unforgivable one. In the early stages of the pandemic, tests were in short supply; getting a handle on who had the virus and who did not was critical; and reaching out to LabGenomics — even cutting through red tape to do so — must have been quite appealing.

But here’s where the Hogan administration made its bigger mistake. From Day 1, it has refused to be anything close to forthcoming about exactly what happened with this transaction, particularly about the functionality of the kits. For months and months, officials either stonewalled or offered conflicting information about what happened. And even last week, when the auditors’ 133-page report was released to the legislature’s Joint Audit and Evaluation Committee, the governor’s spokesman was quick to fault it as a partisan exercise that “wasted” the state’s “time and tax dollars” — this about an office that has a reputation for being anything but politically driven (just ask Democratic administrations that have suffered its stinging rebukes as well).

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What Mr. Hogan and his staff should be saying is something like this: “Look, things looked pretty bleak last April. We thought this was out-of-the-box thinking. We cut some corners. In retrospect, we made some mistakes. This was an extraordinary event. Now, let’s sit down and review the emergency procurement process and see if some reforms are needed. Oh, and we should have been far more transparent about what was going on months ago.”

Instead, we’re getting attacks on the auditors and forensic accountants making state wages, including a claim that the four-month review was rushed. The problem isn’t just that the facts aren’t on Mr. Hogan’s side, it’s that there’s clearly a strategy here of never admitting fault and of misdirection — first insisting the tests were being held back in reserve, for example, before later admitting they were swapped out at added cost (explained as an “upgrade”). And now, looking back, the Hogan administration is still incapable of admitting error with the poorly executed contract. Spokesman Mike Ricci actually referred to the multimillion-dollar procurement of hundreds of thousands of tests that were likely never used as an “international accomplishment.”

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Is it ego? Is it personal because first lady Yumi Hogan was reportedly involved? Is it strategic self-interest because Gov. Hogan received national press for innovative thinking on testing (not to mention a willingness to blame Republican President Donald Trump for his failed COVID-19 response)? Or does it simply follow a pattern these past six years in the State House of alternating “Good Larry” and “Bad Larry” appearances, where the governor switches between the pragmatic centrist and the partisan fact-bender. It’s the difference between the governor who comes to a budget agreement with Democratic leaders versus the one who claimed last November that the state has “not had a single problem with one single LabGenomics test kit.” Not. A. Single. Problem.

We doubt the audit is going to change much about how the governor operates at this stage of his second term. If lawmakers are especially angry about all this, it certainly didn’t show up in the recent Senate vote to confirm Dennis Schrader as health secretary, 45-2, last Friday. But it ought to at least motivate legislators to consider reforms that might help prevent something similar from happening again — most notably what auditors described as a “pervasive lack of written documentation” regarding the procurement and the results. It also might be prudent to take a second look at whistleblower protections considering, as the auditors note, at least two state employees lost their jobs after raising concerns about the tests. This was not the Hogan administration’s finest hour, and all involved have made it much worse by dodging questions, spinning tales and not taking responsibility for what happened.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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