Gov. Kathy Hochul pressed on renewing donor-friendly COVID state of emergency edict
Gov. Kathy Hochul have been facing sharp criticism for keeping in place a COVID-19 state of emergency that dates back to her predecessor that some say serves largely to benefit her campaign donors.
Hochul has renewed a state of emergency for months that has suspended state purchasing rules which, the Times Union reported Tuesday, let a rapid testing company called Digital Gadgets — led by a campaign donor — secure $637 million in no-bid business from the state Department of Health since December.
“We have these finance laws for a reason. They’re there to protect the taxpayers from paying too much because the state is playing favorites with contractors,” Bill Hammond, a senior fellow for health care policy at the government watchdog Empire Center for Public Policy, told The Post.
The owner of the company, Charlie Tebele, and his family, have given nearly $300,000 to Hochul as she runs for election to her post against Republican gubernatorial nominee Rep. Lee Zeldin.
Bryan Lesswing, a senior advisor for Hochul, defended the business with the company, which he said provided tests necessary to keep schools open.
“The state contacted multiple vendors to acquire enough tests to distribute to schools to protect New York’s teachers, students, and parents, and Digital Gadgets was the only vendor that was able to fulfill this urgent need. Digital Gadgets successfully delivered all the tests the State needed within the requested timeline,” he said in an email.
The controversial donations are the latest example of people with business before the state donating heavily to Hochul, who vowed to make state government more transparent and accountable after succeeding the scandal-plagued Andrew Cuomo last August.
Hochul has faced criticism for other moves benefitting donors to her campaign, including intervention by her administration in a state liquor license renewal and her support for a $1.4 billion new stadium for her beloved Buffalo Bills paid with $600 million in state money.
“The more we learn, the more it becomes clear she will only make Albany’s culture of corruption far more toxic than ever before,” Zeldin said in a statement.
“Every month, Kathy Hochul has been unilaterally extending her own COVID emergency powers without legislative approval, which results in new corners that she can cut to reward her campaign donors with massive government contracts,” he added.
Hochul issued an executive order last September that allowed her to loosen state rules on purchasing and hospital staffing to boost hospital and testing capacity as the omicron wave swept the state.
A second order in November made it even easier for the state to stock up on supplies without worrying about bidding requirements or the typical oversight of the state comptroller over contracts.
“When New York was confronted with a rise in cases due to the Omicron surge at the end of last year, the State quickly took action to protect New Yorkers by distributing at-home tests to schools, nursing homes and adult-care facilities, local governments, and non-profits serving vulnerable populations,” Lesswing said in a statement.
New COVID-19 cases reached 90,000 in one day last December as the omicron variant swept the state, but state data positive tests for the virus have leveled out at about 5,000 cases per day in recent months.
The monthlong decline in cases has fed mounting accusations of executive overreach from Republicans in the state Legislature.
“Today the Governor has decided for more than 19 million people in NY that there is still a “state of emergency” going on as it relates to COVID. She knows this is not true. It’s just another desperate attempt at clinging onto unilateral power, like her predecessor before her,” Republican state Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt tweeted July 14.
The state of emergency has allowed the Hochul administration to secure additional staff for veterans, keep a COVID hotline running and deploy pop-up vaccination and testing sites amid new variants, according to the Hochul administration.
New York City and several surrounding counties remain areas of high transmission for the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control — a fact that the Hochul administration says justifies the ongoing suspension of normal rules on state purchasing and health care staffing.
“During this ongoing pandemic and amid emerging variants, the emergency order provides the State with flexibility to protect vulnerable New Yorkers and swiftly respond to urgent needs,” Lesswing said in a subsequent statement.
But critics say current caseloads mean the governor should let the executive orders maintaining the state of emergency expire.
“We’re at kind of a low boil, right? And we’ve been dealing with this virus in various forms for more than two years. She’s had plenty of time to regularize her purchasing practices,” Hammond said.