The shortage of N95 masks, vital medical supplies that can help curb the spread of COVID-19, has made headlines due to the pandemic. This time because the Trump administration awarded a $55 million contract to Panthera Worldwide, a company with a questionable reputation that has never manufactured N95 masks nor other medical supplies. According to a Washington Post report, in addition to selling the masks to the Federal Emergency Management Agency “at nearly eight times what it would have spent in January and February when U.S. intelligence agencies warned of a looming global pandemic,” the company filed for bankruptcy last year. Panthera is also being sued by a lessor and has had no employees in the past two years.
“This is not how the government procures training or any type of supplies,” Chuck Hagel, a former defense secretary, said in the article. “You just wouldn’t do business with somebody like that.”
In fact, the U.S. government regularly conducts business with private contractors like Panthera with minimal oversight and accountability. And even though they use taxpayer money to carry out government initiatives, these private contractors are currently not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Now more than ever, in the middle of a pandemic crisis, Congress needs to provide stronger oversight of agencies’ use of contractors by ensuring private businesses are subject to FOIA in the same manner as federal entities.
Congress missed an opportunity to protect against waste and abuse of taxpayer money when it passed the $2 trillion CARES Act, the largest stimulus package in U.S. history, last month. We have recommended to Congress that it include strong transparency and accountability mechanisms in the next legislative response to COVID-19.