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Governor Gavin Newsom gave more fodder to critics of his administration who have called out the lack of transparency in a deal for protective masks from China.
A public records request from the Los Angeles Times was denied, blocking details about a nearly $1 billion deal with a Chinese electric car manufacturer to provide the masks amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services maintained in a letter to The Times on Monday that the $990-million contract with BYD, which stands for Build Your Dreams, did not need to be disclosed and, furthermore, could jeopardize the delivery of the masks still awaiting shipment.
“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, informed The Times in a letter.
“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 even as millions of the masks have already arrived in the state.
Last month, as nations scrambled to secure low supplies of protective equipment, Newsom told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow about the deal California had struck with the Chinese company to supply surgical and N95 protective masks.
“We decided enough’s enough,” the Democrat governor said in the April 7 interview. “Let’s use the power, the purchasing power of the state of California, as a nation-state.”
The next day, Newsom told reporters that “as a nation-state, with the capacity to write a check for hundreds of millions, no billions, of dollars, we’re in a position to do something bold and big.”
The agreement, which would reportedly be in effect for at least two months, was to buy 200 million masks monthly, according to a Cal OES spokesman.
The Los Angeles Times requested information about the deal the day after Newsom’s MSNBC appearance.
According to The Times:
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.
California lawmakers also sought more information on the agreement, questioning in the following weeks why they were not allowed to view the details.
Budget committee member and Democratic state Assemblyman Richard Bloom remarked that details of the deal “are very murky.”
“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,” Democrat state Sen. Holly Mitchell told Newsom’s budget director in a letter last month.
Newsom indicated last month that he was looking forward to “all those details becoming public very, very shortly” and downplayed any concerns about a lack of transparency.
“Some are consumed by process, personality, intrigue, who’s up, who’s down?” the governor said at the time. “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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