NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Did Tennessee's health commissioner mislead state lawmakers about a questionable contract for COVID-19 testing?
That's the latest serious accusation coming from a former health department insider who questions the Lee administration's use of your money for a $26.5 million, no-bid contract with a politically connected firm with no experience in testing.
That questionable contract, first exposed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, sparked a legislative hearing back in December.
Now, an independent review by NewsChannel 5 raises serious questions about some of the claims made by Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey during her testimony before the legislature's Fiscal Review Committee.
"We knew that she was not being truthful with that committee," said Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who until recently served as a key member of Tennessee's pandemic response.
"When she was pressed on certain issues, she was not being truthful."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Fiscus about one of her health department colleagues messaging her about their commissioner's testimony, saying: "Lies! Lies! Lies!"
"That's right," she acknowledged.
We continued, "The concern was that the commissioner of health was lying to the legislative committee?"
Piercey testifies pitch came 'from another state'
Take, for example, the question about where the contract came from.
"This vendor was brought to by the governor’s office?" Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, asked the commissioner.
Piercey agreed, adding: "From another state that had success with it."
In fact, emails obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates show a Republican political consultant had actually contacted Gov. Bill Lee’s chief of staff, who put him in touch with Piercey.
Two weeks later, health department staff got the “good news” that “the commissioner is arranging for a contract – probably already signed."
Piercey testifies she 'solicited' staff input
Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, questioned Piercey about that timeline.
"It surprises me that you didn’t ask the people who were actually responsible for overseeing the test," Curcio said.
The commissioner's response: "Solicited a lot of input from both our lab staff and my senior leadership team."
"I think soliciting input and listening to your experts is two different things," Fiscus said.
As our investigation first revealed, the highly respected head of Tennessee’s state lab, Dr. Richard Steece, had emailed higher-ups: "Please tell me we can get out of this contract? Or better yet it has not been signed?"
Steece was told that the contract was already "signed, sealed, delivered.”
Piercey testifies lab staff not concerned about test
"The biggest lie that I heard was when she said that Dr. Steece, who's the head laboratorian, was not concerned about the quality of the testing," Fiscus said.
In fact, Piercey was asked about Steece's concerns.
"The part that he was concerned about wasn’t necessarily the part that ended up failing," the commissioner testified.
At another point, she claimed Nomi had been able to satisfy the health department staff's concerns about the reliability of its tests.
"We were satisfied with that - and that includes Dr. Steece and Dr. Levinson," Piercey told Curcio, referring to the lab's deputy director Dr. Kara Levinson.
In fact, Steece and Levinson had expressed their “significant concerns” that Nomi’s test would generate “false negative results” – the exact issue that would be the downfall of the deal.
Fiscus recalled, "They got to the point where they would not allow Dr. Steece to be present in meetings because Dr. Steece was so vocal in his opposition to Nomi."
Piercey testifies state could still use test kits
And when Nomi’s tests failed, Piercey still agreed to pay the company almost $6 million dollars.
"About two and a half million of that was for a hundred thousand test kits," Piercey testified.
She told the Fiscal Review Committee that, because there was still a lot of testing to be done, that money wasn’t wasted.
"The actual kits are pretty agnostic, if you will. You can pretty much use those on any platform," Piercey testified.
But the state’s final review of Nomi’s product was clear: “Specimen collection kits provided by Nomi contain a transport media that cannot be used on other COVID-19 platforms” at the state lab.
Another email referred to the substance inside Nomi's test kits as being a "mystery."
"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 said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed up, "So what you're saying is that money was indeed wasted?"
Dr. Fiscus agreed.
"They couldn't be returned to Nomi, and they couldn't be used by the state either."
Fiscus said that what the Commissioner was not willing to tell state lawmakers is this: the entire contract was a complete waste of taxpayer money.
"Because to have egg on her face and have it not be successful was not going to look very good."
NewsChannel 5 reached out to Commissioner Piercey's office to give them a chance to respond to each of the discrepancies highlighted in our report.
Their response, simply: "Dr. Piercey stands by her testimony."