Lawmaker asks Missouri agency to document its oversight of emergency COVID purchasing

TESSA WEINBERG
Missouri Independent
Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

The ranking Democratic member on the House Budget Committee requested Wednesday that state officials document oversight of emergency purchases during the pandemic — and questioned why emergency, no-bid contracts are still being granted.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, sent a letter to state Budget Director Dan Haug that built upon lawmakers’ questioning of the Office of Administration, the state agency that oversees purchasing and contracting, last week during a House Budget Committee hearing.

A copy of the letter was provided to The Independent.

Merideth’s questions sought details on whether OA created a mechanism for departments to track emergency procurements under the authority it granted state agencies allowing them to make purchases over $50,000 to respond to COVID-19 without the usual prior approval.

The letter also requested information on whether all departments complied with OA’s guidance, how often OA checked the accuracy of the purchasing information departments submitted, a list of consultants purchased under the authority and whether the agency had a system in place to evaluate the value of the services provided.

A spokesman for OA said Wednesday afternoon he had not seen the letter and could not immediately comment.

The Independent first reported on the emergency authorization last week. Spreadsheets and emails obtained through open records requests detailed how agencies spent tens of millions of state and federal funds to pay for face masks, temporary staff and more while the authorization was in place.

OA requested each agency submit a log of purchases over $50,000. What was documented varied. Some departments kept detailed logs. Others simply submitted purchases that were eligible for federal reimbursement but didn’t fall under the emergency authority. Several agencies said they didn’t use the emergency authorization at all.

Some of the largest purchases detailed in logs agencies submitted to OA were on private consultants that advised the state on its pandemic response. A few companies that have already been paid millions under their emergency contracts have recently had their contracts with the state extended through the end of the year.

OA previously said the division did not have an overall estimate of the total cost of purchases over $50,000 made under the authorization.

According to the Office of Administration’s records on file that date back to 2002, it was the only time the Division of Purchasing granted an emergency procurement authorization statewide to executive branch agencies it oversees.

Merideth’s questions not only focused on how the unprecedented authorization was used, but also why emergency procurements continue to be issued.

“Why is the state continuing to use emergency no-bid contracting for contracts in excess of $30 million, such as the contract recently awarded to SLSCO, a company with a documented history of seeing egregiously nominal or no patients while securing multimillion dollar contracts across the country?” the letter read.

The Independent reported Tuesday that SLSCO, a Galveston, Texas-based company stands to make upwards of $30 million through a no-bid emergency contract the Department of Health and Senior Services entered into to acquire healthcare staffing, antibody treatment centers and alternate care sites. The contract is currently in place through Nov. 30, according to a copy provided to The Independent.

House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, previously said he felt the emergency procurement authorization was an appropriate step for OA to take. However, he said lawmakers will play an oversight role to ensure federal stimulus funds were appropriately spent.

In Wednesday’s letter, Merideth wrote that he was mindful of the enormous challenges the state faced to respond quickly to the pandemic and with the necessary flexibility. He stressed his questions were intended to “build legislative understanding of what worked, what didn’t, and what lessons the state learned from this and can implement moving forward.”

“I also want to be sure we are prepared for a proper accounting of how dollars were spent, especially in anticipation of federal audits that are likely to come,” he wrote.

Merideth also asked for information on what federal stimulus funds remain unspent, which will require appropriations from the General Assembly and breakdowns of the fiscal year 2022 revenue estimate totals.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a public charity.