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New emails raise more questions about truthfulness of health commissioner's testimony

Emails show plan to destroy $2.5M of test supplies
Posted: 11:50 AM, Aug 04, 2021
Updated: 2021-08-04 19:28:15-04
Lisa Piercey and John Webb.png

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — New emails obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates raise even more questions about the truthfulness of Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey in testimony before a legislative committee about a controversial state contract.

Piercey, along with Deputy Commissioner John Webb, appeared before the legislature's Fiscal Review Committee back in December regarding a $26.5 million, no-bid contract that the department signed last year with Nomi Health for COVID testing.

The health commissioner defended her decision to pay Nomi nearly $6 million when its tests proved to be unreliable, claiming that $2.5 million of that total was for specimen collection kits that her department had put into a warehouse with the plan to use them later.

"The test kits, some of them may have been used, some of them may still be there. To my knowledge, there's nothing wrong with the test kits," Piercey told the Fiscal Review Committee.

Later, the commissioner told the committee: "The actual test kits are pretty agnostic, if you will. You can use those on any platform.... That was just added to our supply."

In fact, the newly released emails suggest that Department of Health officials felt they were left with no choice but to destroy the $2.5 million of testing supplies, which they had determined to be unusable.

Watch testimony excerpts below:

This latest disclosure follows other questions about Piercey's testimony regarding the no-bid deal she personally approved. One email suggests the contract was signed "without ... potentially proper vetting."

The legislature's fiscal watchdogs summoned Piercey before the committee after a NewsChannel 5 investigation revealed that the testing contract with the politically connected Utah company was signed over the objections of career state employees.

Piercey told lawmakers that the $2.5 million provided for 100,000 test kits, but the emails show the discussion revolved around 68,000 units.

Despite her testimony in December, the new emails show that Deputy Commissioner Webb had told Piercey five months earlier -- on July 21, 2020 -- that "I don't know if we will be able to" use those kits.

A review of Nomi's product by the department's own laboratory experts concluded: “Specimen collection kits provided by Nomi contain a transport media that cannot be used on other COVID-19 platforms.”

Viral transport medium is the solution used to preserve a virus specimen until it can make it to a laboratory for analysis.

In a separate exchange on July 21-22, Dr. Richard Steece, director of Tennessee's Public Health Laboratory, asked Webb if Nomi would be willing to pay to ship the kits to its customers in other states.

"I know Iowa is using their collection kits and would like them, but I feel it is not appropriate for us to spend money to send Nomi reagents to one of their customers," Steece added.

The deputy commissioner said Nomi would not cooperate.

"Nomi will not ship or take back the test kits or reagents," Webb told Steece. "If we wanted to sell to Iowa (I'm not sure how we do that), then I guess that is a possibility."

The lab director responded, "These are not test kits or reagents, they are collection devices, e.g., swabs, medium, etc."

"We can't sell to Iowa, but Nomi should be supporting their customer with these collection kits," Steece said. "If still not interested, no problem. We will dispose of them."

He concluded: "What a waste."

Still, Deputy Commissioner Webb pressed the lab director, "Can you not repurpose the collection devices?"

"We can't use the medium," Steece answered.

Former state health department insider Dr. Michelle Fiscus explained.

"Nomi would never tell the lab what was in the transport medium, in the test kits - and they knew just by the look of it that it would not be compatible with any of the other platforms in the laboratory," Fiscus told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

The new emails show that, on July 31, 2020, the lab's deputy director, Dr. Kara Levinson, tried again to find a solution.

"Is there any way to use COVID-19 funds to pay for shipping of the Nomi specimen collection kits to the Iowa public health lab?" Levinson said in an email to Webb.

"We have 68,000 kits, and I hate to see them go to waste when Iowa said they could use them.”

Levinson concluded, "Regardless, we need to free up the space in the lab and I just wanted to see if there was any option (that doesn't cost the lab $$) to get the kits to Iowa before essentially tossing them here."

There was no response in the batch of emails provided to NewsChannel 5 Investigates under the Tennessee Public Records Act.

It is not clear if the lab "tossed" the unusable test kits or if, as the commissioner testified, they were put into a warehouse.

In response to questioning from Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, the health commissioner promised to follow up and provide Fiscal Review Committee members with a full accounting of what happened to the test kits, but Travis and committee staff tell NewsChannel 5 that they never received the promised documentation.

Deputy Commissioner Webb was at Piercey's side throughout the December legislative hearing, but he made no effort to correct his boss regarding her testimony about the Nomi test kits.

The new emails also show one purchasing official was concerned that Piercey had awarded the Nomi contract without following protocols for emergency purchases "or potentially proper vetting."

That official was told that, because of the state of emergency declared by Gov. Bill Lee for the Tennessee's COVID response, the normal purchasing procedures did not apply.

In addition, after career state employees raised red flags about the deal, the emails suggest Piercey turned to Lee's chief of state, Blake Harris.

"I have confirmed that the Utah and TN Governor's Chiefs of Staff communicated last night, and all is good," Piercey wrote.

New Fiscal Review Committee member Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, has called on state auditors to investigate the Nomi contract and other no-bid deals awarded by the Lee administration.

"We want an audit of this, we want to know exactly what happened, and we want to find out whether or not we are being told the truth," Campbell said.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, also has twice called upon state auditors to conduct a full review of the nearly $500 million in no-bid spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Tennessee families deserve to know what Bill Lee did with their hard-earned tax dollars while they were struggling to make ends meet throughout this pandemic,” Clemmons said.

The former health department insider, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, recently told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that career employees knew Piercey was misleading the Fiscal Review Committee on several points.

"We knew that she was not being truthful with that committee," Fiscus said. "When she was pressed on certain issues, she was not being truthful."

A health department spokesperson responded to Fiscus' claims, saying: "Dr. Piercey stands by her testimony."

Related stories:

Tennessee wastes millions on no-bid COVID contract with politically connected company

Lawmakers grill Tennessee health commissioner over no-bid COVID-19 contract

Former insider says she almost quit over Lee administration's controversial COVID testing contract

Did health commissioner mislead state lawmakers?

Special Section: COVID Investigations