Calls in Congress for probe on how former Trump aide won $3 million respirator contract

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — A leading Democrat on the House Oversight Committee asked an inspector general on Tuesday to investigate how a former deputy chief of staff to President Trump received a multimillion-dollar contract to deliver respirators to a Native American community hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The request by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., signals that Democrats intend to aggressively oversee how the Trump administration is disbursing the trillions of dollars allocated by Congress for coronavirus relief measures for individuals, corporations and small businesses.

Connolly pressed Christi Grimm, principal deputy inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services and the sole witness at the briefing, to begin looking into how the former White House aide, Zachary Fuentes, came to receive a $3 million contract despite lacking expertise in medical device procurement. 

Grimm did not commit to open an investigation. 

“The no-bid contract awarded to Mr. Fuentes definitely has our full attention,” Connolly told Yahoo News after the hearing. Connolly, who heads the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations, vowed that even if HHS did not investigate the Fuentes contract, congressional Democrats would do so themselves. During the hearing itself, he said there was “something suspicious” about the whole affair. 

Connolly said that such an investigation would likely be conducted by his own subcommittee and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., who is heading a new coronavirus oversight committee

The matter, Connolly said, was “ripe” for “really vigorous examination and inquiry.” Trump and his allies in the GOP have portrayed such inquiries as politically motivated efforts to hobble him politically. That thinking has never persuaded Democrats, who have shot back that if the president had nothing to hide, he would allow their investigations to proceed unimpeded.

A spokeswoman for HHS did not provide comment for this article.

Zachary Fuentes, left, and subcommittee Chair Gerry Connolly. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Carolyn Kaster/AP, Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Last Friday, the nonprofit website ProPublica reported that Fuentes won a “limited competitive bidding” contract with the Indian Health Service, which is part of the federal health department, to provide N95 respirator masks to two Navajo Nation hospitals in the Southwest. The Navajo Nation has suffered 156 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

Less than two weeks after forming a company called Zach Fuentes LLC, Fuentes received the $3 million contract to provide the masks. Doctors, nurses and other hospital staff need the equipment to protect themselves from being infected with the coronavirus. Surgical masks also provide some protection against airborne viral particles, but are inferior to N95 respirators

According to ProPublica, “247,000 of the masks delivered by Fuentes’ company — at a cost of roughly $800,000 — may be unsuitable for medical use. An additional 130,400, worth about $422,000, are not the type specified in the procurement data.” Information on the allegedly faulty masks provided by Zach Fuentes LLC was made available to ProPublica by the Indian Health Service, which oversees health care on Native American lands. 

Fuentes could not be reached for comment. 

Grimm, the HHS inspector general, has been the target of Trump’s ire since early April, when her office published a report that said hospitals lacked personal protective equipment and coronavirus testing supplies. As he frequently does when inspectors general find fault with the administration — as they are supposed to — Trump reacted harshly, dismissing her findings and baselessly suggesting she was part of a Democratic opposition to his administration. 

Grimm stood by her conclusions on Tuesday, even as she said that some of those shortfalls have been rectified. She spoke from an office in which a large blue HHS flag was plainly visible behind her. Trump has nominated Jason Weida, an assistant U.S. attorney, to fill Grimm’s post, but the nomination must be approved by the Senate.  

Christi Grimm, principal deputy inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. (House.gov video via Yahoo News)

Trump has fired several other inspectors general in recent weeks, in what critics say is an attempt to cripple meaningful oversight of his administration. Connolly vowed that any such hopes on the president’s part were “profoundly mistaken.” 

A frequent critic of Trump who represents a vigorously Democratic swath of the Washington suburbs in northern Virginia, Connolly asked Grimm if she would investigate how Fuentes, despite his lack of experience in the field, had such an easy time winning such a large contract.

“Whenever we are made aware of potential improprieties, we would look into that,” Grimm answered, though she stopped short of confirming that any investigation into the Fuentes matter had been or would be launched. Connolly then said that he and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Oversight Committee, would write Grimm a letter formally requesting such an investigation. 

“I don’t know that I heard a firm commitment” from Grimm, Connolly said to Yahoo News after the briefing concluded. 

Before leaving the Trump administration, Fuentes was a deputy to John Kelly, the retired Marine general who was Trump’s second chief of staff. His insistence on chain-of-command protocol rankled some Trump loyalists who liked the president’s freewheeling style. That made Kelly’s top deputies, including Fuentes and Kirstjen Nielsen, who later went on to head the Department of Homeland Security, unpopular with some White House staffers. 

Fuentes earned the unflattering nickname ZOTUS, for “Zach of the United States,” because of what some saw as his heavy-handed manner. 

Kelly left the White House in late 2018 and was eventually replaced by the combative conservative Mick Mulvaney (he, too, has since left the position). Fuentes followed Kelly out, intending, according to a report in the New York Times, to assume a low-profile position in the administration while waiting to qualify for a pension for his service as an officer with the Coast Guard. 

He has since reinvented himself as a federal contractor, but the future of that new career is now being called into question. 

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