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Newsom administration refuses to divulge nearly $1-billion contract for coronavirus masks

Gov. Gavin Newsom, welcoming the hospital ship USNS Mercy into the Port of Los Angeles in March. The governor has refused to reveal the details of a contract for almost $1 billion in protective masks being provided by a Chinese company.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Attorneys for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration refused Monday to reveal the contents of a $990-million contract for purchasing protective masks from a Chinese electric car manufacturer, even though millions of the masks have already arrived in California to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter responding to a public records request from the Los Angeles Times, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services insisted the contract with BYD does not have to be made public, despite similar requests made by members of the Legislature since Newsom announced the deal last month.

“Cal OES determined all responsive records are exempt from disclosure, including exemptions for records reflecting attorney work product, attorney-client privileged information, or other information exempt from disclosure under federal or state law,” Ryan Gronsky, an attorney with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, wrote in a letter to The Times.

Newsom first touted the deal for the company to sell the state a combination of N95 protective masks and more traditional surgical masks during an April 7 appearance on MSNBC.

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“We decided enough’s enough,” the governor said to host Rachel Maddow of the state’s need to ensure protective masks could be acquired for emergency responders. “Let’s use the power, the purchasing power of the state of California, as a nation-state.”

A Cal OES spokesman said the agreement calls for the purchase of 200 million masks a month — including 150 million of the N95 variety — and would be in effect for at least two months. But all other details, including the price paid per mask, have been kept confidential.

During the coronavirus crisis, food producers, distributors and retailers in California, producer of much of the U.S. food supply, scramble to adapt.

The Times asked for all documents related to the BYD contract the day after Newsom’s TV appearance. Lawmakers have also requested additional details. Under provisions of emergency legislation ratified in March before the Legislature suspended operations due to the public health crisis, advisors to Newsom were required to give 72 hours notice before authorizing spending on coronavirus-related items. But for the contract with BYD to obtain masks, the administration said action had to be taken even faster.

“Under normal circumstances, the Legislature would have had more time to deliberate an expenditure of this magnitude and would have been allowed to thoroughly vet the details of the contract before proceeding,” state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) wrote in an April 9 letter to Newsom’s budget director.

In the weeks since, legislators have frequently asked why they’ve been denied access to the contract. Administration officials have insisted disclosure could jeopardize the delivery of the masks, a concern repeated in Monday’s letter to The Times.

“Publishing the agreement now — before performance under the contract is complete — would introduce substantial and unnecessary risk to the State’s ability to secure necessary supplies,” Gronsky wrote.

The first installment of masks arrived last weekend in Los Angeles. A spokesman for Cal OES said Monday that more than 10 million surgical masks have now been delivered. The N95 masks, he said, still are awaiting safety approval by federal officials.

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BYD announced in March that it was retooling its Shenzhen vehicle facility to produce masks and hand sanitizer. The company has a U.S. subsidiary headquartered in Los Angeles County, whose executives were touted by state officials as integral to the deal. To date, the state has paid a BYD-affiliated company almost $600 million.

Asked on April 18 about his administration’s refusal to disclose the document, Newsom said he looked forward to “all those details becoming public very, very shortly.” Repeating a promise that the BYD deal could also produce enough protective masks for other states, the governor dismissed concerns about the lack of transparency.

“Some are consumed by process, personality, intrigue, who’s up, who’s down?” Newsom said. “We are for actually solving a major, major problem. Not only for the state, but potentially a template for the country.”


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