The Scripps Howard Foundation announced this week that ProPublica’s reporting on mismanagement in the federal response to COVID-19 is a finalist for the Scripps Howard National Journalism Awards in the Excellence in Business/Financial Reporting category.
Soon after the COVID-19 crisis set in, ProPublica found that the federal government tossed aside its many rules on contracting to give out billions of dollars to just about anyone who said they could supply personal protective equipment. Unsurprisingly, an unprecedented array of opportunists emerged.
A story by Patricia Callahan and Sebastian Rotella showed how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services paid tens of millions of dollars to develop low-cost portable ventilators that the contractor never delivered. In addition, the reporters exposed that the White House had struck a new deal to get the ventilators — but for four times the original price.
These stories sparked a congressional investigation and led to a scathing report that found “evidence of fraud, waste, and abuse” in the deal the White House struck with Philips and a broader probe of Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro, the point person on the deal. More importantly, the federal government terminated the Philips contract early, saving taxpayers more than $400 million.
ProPublica found multiple ill-advised contracts tied to the White House. J. David McSwane and Yeganeh Torbati uncovered a $96 million deal struck by the Federal Emergency Management Agency without competitive bidding under White House orders. Torbati also reported that the Indian Health Services had awarded a contract worth $3 million to a former White House official after limited bidding. The story prompted the agency to demand a refund, after discovering that many of the masks supplied were unsuitable for use.
News apps developers Moiz Syed and Derek Willis also created a searchable database that allowed users to track the government’s spending and scrutinize its contract recipients. Some 345 federal contracts, worth almost $2 billion, went to first-time contractors, many of whom had formed their companies days or weeks before landing multimillion-dollar deals.
McSwane plunged into the world of these contractors, journeying across America to meet what he called the “buccaneers and pirates” trying to make a fast buck from the country’s misfortune. One of them now faces 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to federal fraud charges that McSwane helped expose.
The reporting not only exposed jaw-dropping instances of waste and bad judgment. It also showed that the government’s procurement failures had life-and-death stakes, leaving hospitals without equipment to treat desperately ill patients and front-line health care workers without supplies that could keep them safe.
See a full list of Scripps Howard Award finalists here.