By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The office of U.S. congressman Adam Kinzinger reached out to the White House last month with an urgent request: a business in his district in Illinois had located 13 million highly sought-after N95 respirator masks in Germany and wanted to know if officials were interested.
The tip – confirmed by the Republican lawmaker’s office, the company and a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official – came as the coronavirus spread across the United States and around the world, sparking a global race to find critical medical protective equipment.
The lead eventually proved to be one of thousands of dead ends that the Federal Emergency Management Agency – coordinating the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic – has fielded in recent weeks as it scours the globe for additional supplies of medical protective equipment, according to a DHS official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While Reuters and other news organizations have documented the intense competition for protective gear in the United States and around the world, FEMA’s battle to vet a deluge of leads – many from reputable sources including U.S. lawmakers – has gotten less attention.
The global rush to find protective medical equipment has transformed the market into a Wild West, with countries bidding against countries, states bidding against states and brokers and middlemen chasing big payouts.
The tip passed on by Kinzinger’s office attracted particular attention from federal officials because of the sheer number of protective masks being proffered. It did not stand up to closer scrutiny, however.
Kinzinger’s staff initially told the White House that SupplyCore Inc, a supply-chain management and logistics company in Rockford, Illinois, hoped to broker a deal to sell the masks to FEMA, according to three people familiar with the matter.
SupplyCore CEO Peter Provenzano said the tip came from a supplier, but he could not disclose the company’s name because of an ongoing business relationship and non-disclosure agreement. Provenzano estimated that the value of the deal could have amounted to $60 million if the masks had actually materialized.
“I don’t know if there was really a warehouse with 13 million (masks) or not,” Provenzano said in an interview. “Everybody approached it with skepticism, but you can’t ignore it.”
When SupplyCore pressed for access to the warehouse and photos of the gear, the seller would not agree unless the company committed to buying the masks. That was a red flag, Provenzano said. FEMA declined to move forward and SupplyCore also walked away from the deal, Provenzano added.
“We were just trying to do our due diligence,” Provenzano said. “If it proved to be true, you’d want to put it on hold and see what you can do to vet and verify it.”
Kinzinger said in a telephone interview that he does not regret referring the lead to FEMA and that the vetting process worked.
“Frankly, it would be malpractice not to make an effort,” Kinzinger said. “If it happened to be real and we didn’t do anything, that would be the story.”
The DHS official familiar with the matter said the deal stood out because the large quantity being offered did not make sense given the tight market.
“Anyone who tells me over a million now, I’m instantly skeptical,” the official said.
FEMA spokeswoman Lea Crager said the agency received more than a thousand responses to a public request for companies to supply protective gear and that “contracting officers must go through and vet all those companies.”
The DHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said suppliers must prove the existence of equipment and may be asked to provide serial numbers or allow access to warehouses or other facilities.
Even with attempts to be vigilant, FEMA has pursued tips that have not panned out. The agency recently sent a plane to Mexico to pick up medical supplies only to learn that they were not there, according to the DHS official.
Crager said she could not confirm whether the agency had sent the flight, but added that she was aware that a FEMA contractor had tried unsuccessfully to obtain protective equipment in Mexico and that the agency had a plane on standby as the contractor tried to reach an agreement with a supplier.
Timothy Manning, a former FEMA deputy administrator for protection and national preparedness, said bad leads – intentional or not – are common during a disaster response.
“It’s not unusual for offers to be lost in translation or miscommunicated,” Manning said. “With a disaster of this magnitude, that’s bound to happen.”
(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Additional reporting by Joseph Tanfani; Editing by Ross Colvin and Will Dunham)