Maryland lawmaker seeks investigation of state’s purchase of COVID tests from South Korean company

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A Maryland lawmaker is asking for an investigation of a flawed, multimillion-dollar state purchase of coronavirus test kits from a South Korean company, saying there is a “strong indication our state’s procurement laws and regulations were violated.”

Gov. Larry Hogan’s splashy $9 million purchase of 500,000 tests from LabGenomics in April 2020 came early in the pandemic, when tests were hard to come by, and he touted the deal as an example of creative thinking and hard work during an emergency.

But it was later revealed that the first tests could not be used, leading the state to spend $2.5 million more on replacements. An audit found that the state hadn’t had a formal contract with LabGenomics and didn’t follow other rules for emergency purchasing.

Del. Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat, wrote Friday to state Attorney General Brian Frosh and State Prosecutor Charlton Howard, asking them to investigate the matter.

“The intent was to help Marylanders in unprecedented times,” Reznik wrote. “However, even in unprecedented times; especially in unprecedented times, laws must be followed to maintain the trust and support of the public. In this case, regardless of intent, it appears that laws may have been broken in the process.”

Hogan, speaking at a news conference in Annapolis where he lifted the state’s mask mandate, called Reznik’s request “absurd.”

“Delegate Reznik and a few of his partisan colleagues have been lying about this effort for 14 months. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the procurement,” Hogan said.

A spokeswoman for Frosh declined to comment.

Howard, whose office prosecutes government corruption cases, said he couldn’t comment “on the status or existence of any investigation.” He said he and his staff “take every request very seriously and we review them with great care.”

State documents and a report from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Audits have indicated there were issues with the LabGenomics purchases, although Hogan last month termed the audit “politically driven.”

“The report produced by the Office of Legislative Audits (OLA) demonstrates not only a lack of oversight and transparency, but a strong indication that our state’s procurement laws and regulations were violated,” Reznik wrote.

The tests that LabGenomics shipped employed a different reagent than a version ultimately approved by the federal government, the audit reported. Most of the first shipment of tests were never used, according to the audit, and the state had to buy 500,000 replacements at an additional cost. Hogan described the second purchase at the time as “swapping out” or “upgrading” the tests.

Hogan said Friday that “every single one of those 500,000 tests was utilized, not a single false reading.”

The second batch of tests came under scrutiny in the fall after a spike in positive results at nursing homes and at Towson University. The University of Maryland Pathology Associates lab that was processing some of the tests stopped using them, and federal inspectors later found problems with the lab’s processes for handling the tests.

Hogan said Friday that the latest questions are “partisan nonsense.”

Reznik said in an interview that he’s not making a partisan attack on the governor and that it’s important to have a full accounting of the deal. He said he’s motivated by concern for following the rules. Had the state better vetted LabGenomics and signed a contract with the company — instead of a less-formal “letter of intent” — it might have gotten its money back, or been able to get the replacement tests without spending millions of extra taxpayer dollars.

Even if viewed in the best light, Reznik wrote in his letter, Hogan and his staff were “playing fast and loose with the rules for expediency.”

Hogan has repeatedly defended the state’s purchase of the tests and dismissed those who have criticized it. He highlighted the deal last summer in his political memoir.

“This was, I would say, our biggest and greatest accomplishment during the entire fight on COVID-19,” he said Friday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole contributed to this article.

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