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

Commissioner Lisa Piercey before Fiscal Review.jpeg
Posted at 6:34 PM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-23 11:53:09-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee's health commissioner was on the hot seat Thursday about her spending on the state's COVID-19 response following an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation.

The legislature's fiscal watchdogs wanted to know more about a multimillion-dollar, no-bid contract that Commissioner Lisa Piercey signed with a politically connected company - with no experience.

"This contract bothers me greatly," said Rep. Bill Beck, D-Madison.

Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, was concerned about the larger picture.

"Unfortunately, I think what I'm hearing is I'm hearing something about a culture," Curcio said.

The legislature's Fiscal Review Committee called the special hearing amid the questions about the state's testing deal signed on May 1st with Nomi Health, a Utah based startup with no experience in testing.

Cost to taxpayers: $26.5 million.

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

"This company offered 90,000 tests a month," Piercey told lawmakers. "I'm not even sure we had done 90,000 tests total. In fact, I'm pretty sure we hadn't even done 90,000 tests total then."

The health commissioner falsely claimed that Nomi had been introduced through the governor's office by another state that had signed up the company.

The truth is: a Republican political consultant contacted the governor's chief of staff, who put him in touch with Piercey.

Curcio pointed to an email in which the director of the state's public health laboratory expressed his frustration when he heard about the contract, pleading: “Please tell me we can get out of this contract? Or better yet it has not been signed?

"It sounds like even at the very outset of this there was an opinion that this vendor was improper or this process was improper - 'please tell me we can get out of this contract,'" the House Republican quoted.

Piercey falsely claimed her staff never warned her that the tests might be faulty.

In fact, there were already headlines from other states, and her own lab team wrote a memo warning of false-negative results.

"What I hear anecdotally," Curcio continued, "is that, well, there are people in state government who have been doing X for 25 years. But there seems to be an echo chamber at the top that gets to make all the decisions and nobody's asking us."

"I'm hearing words like 'handcuffed' and 'stifled' and 'why are you paying me to do a job that you're not asking me to weigh in on?'"

Instead of its promise to deliver medical gloves, Nomi provided Tennessee with breeders gloves used on farm animals.

And when the tests did indeed prove faulty, Piercey agreed to pay the company nearly $6 million to get out of the contract.

"These guys seem like they had no idea of testing, PPE or anything else, but the state bought an ill of goods. Do you feel that way?" Rep. Beck asked.

"I actually don't, sir," Piercey answered. "While you know what they say about hindsight, I think we made the best decision that we could at the time with the information that we had."

Piercey, on one hand, argued that what made the deal with Nomi Health so enticing was that they were offering up personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves, at a time when PPE was "like gold."

But when pressed about the poor quality PPE provided by the company, her defense there was to say that PPE was just a very small part of the contract.