Opinion: Tennessee lawmakers' crusade against Lee administration's no-bid COVID-19 contracts

Staff file photo by Elizabeth Fite / Gov. Bill Lee's sock mask contract is just one of several no-bid contracts that the bipartisan Fiscal Review Committee is citing as it seeks to reform the state's contract guidelines.

You have to wonder if the right hand in Nashville knows what the left hand is doing - especially with our money.

Last week, Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, in a letter asked Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk to investigate no-bid contracts approved by Gov. Bill Lee's administration during the state of emergency prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That would be, by the way, the state of emergency Lee and many of our Republican lawmakers intimate doesn't exist if the Biden administration wants masks and vaccines, but does exist if Republicans, friends and lawmakers would may profit on the virus.

You'll remember the infamous TN "sock masks" - the ones Gov. Bill Lee had made to help us not spread COVID-19 (back before Biden became president and Lee became an anti-masker) to the tune of an $8.3 million no-bid contract to Renfro Corp., a North Carolina sock maker with a plant in Cleveland.

The weave was so breezy you could see light through the socks. And never mind that pesky CDC guideline that made it clear a mask needed to be made of two-ply cotton - minimum. We still don't know the details of that particular no-bid contract, as both the Lee administration and the company declined to provide any specifics beyond emails referencing "black sock masks" from Renfro as being the "governor's request," according to news reports by News Channel 5 in Nashville.

Just last month we learned that over the past year, the state quietly awarded, amended and extended a now-$75 million contact tracing deal with Xtend Healthcare, a Hendersonville medical billing firm with no previous experience in epidemiology. But here's the bigger headscratcher - Tennessee has long had no real contact-tracing.

The Tennessee Lookout reported last month that school officials and parents in Knoxville, Clarksville, Sumner County and elsewhere began angrily criticizing the failure of the state's contact tracing efforts as early as the beginning of this school year. What's the point of finding out you should quarantine 11 days after your exposure, parents and teachers asked. You also may recall that in Hamilton County, you had to check the school system's COVID dashboard each day. No one called. Plus, more than once, the Hamilton County Health Department had to suspend its own tracing when virus numbers grew beyond what workers and volunteers could handle.

Last year, NewsChannel 5 began trying to track no-bid pandemic spending in what it then said was an overall $80 million spending spree since the declaration of a state of emergency in March of 2020.

Surprise, surprise, in some cases those sweet, no-bid deals went to companies with political connections.

Pale Horse Global Risk Solutions, a small security company in a remote part of Hickman County, became the recipient of a state purchase order for $13.5 million in PPE. Among the equipment was N-95 masks for $2.55 each. Other vendors were charging just over 54 cents. The station found that Pale Horses's first contact with the state was through Metro Nashville Council member Robert Swope, a long-time Republican activist and Tennessee state director for the Trump campaign in 2016.

There also was a contract for hospital gowns - $5.50 each - made to the company of a state representative who chaired the House subcommittee that oversees legislation involving public health. Rep. Jerry Sexton's furniture company - yeah, furniture company - cut that deal and doubled other vendors' prices, according to NewsChannel 5's investigative reporter Phil Williams.

Campbell last week also highlighted a no-bid contract awarded to a Utah company for testing and personal protective equipment, even though the company had no health care experience. The Lee administration paid the company almost $6 million to void the deal.

"You don't just throw all the rules and standards out the window just because it's an emergency," state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, told the TV station.

It's not just Democrats who are unhappy with no-bid contracts. Ask our own Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire. As a member of the Fiscal Review Committee, he stood with Democrat Heidi Campbell last week to say the committee is ready to revamp state contract guidelines with new rules or legislation.

With the blessing of Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, speaker of the Senate, Gardenhire is set to hold a special meeting of the Fiscal Review Committee in early 2022 to discuss procedures the panel wants to amend to avoid problems with state contracts.

"Let's get a process in place so when we have an emergency situation, [we'll have a road map of] just what an agency can do with a quick, emergency contract, what we do when the federal government throws all this money in our lap and there's a time limit on how to spend it and how it's rushed through us, and what they have to do to report to us," Gardenhire said.

The state received about $2.6 billion from the federal government through the 2020 CARES Act for pandemic relief, part of which it used to make emergency purchases. Also our money.

No bid contracts have been a sweet deal now for too long in Tennessee. The pandemic just brought the problem to forefront. Gardenhire and Campbell are right: It's time to do something about it.