By The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board
April 22, 2020
… California law gives the State Legislature the authority to issue subpoenas. If Gov. Gavin Newsom won’t embrace transparency in his billion-dollar mask deal, perhaps it’s time for legislative leaders to dust off their rarely-used subpoena power.
In March, Newsom announced his bold plan to spend nearly $1 billion to buy 400 million masks as well as other items of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed during the coronavirus pandemic. His announcement on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show surprised many state legislators.
Citing a range of concerns, Newsom’s administration has refused to allow the Legislature to see the contract. But it’s the Legislature’s job to provide oversight. …
The Newsom administration has blatantly stonewalled legislative requests for the state’s contract with BYD, a Chinese company with a California subsidiary. Newsom’s office says disclosure of the contract’s details might endanger the delivery of California’s supplies. California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci told an Assembly committee on Monday that, in an atmosphere of “fraud, promises not kept and substandard items,” sharing details of the contract might “jeopardize” the deal. …
… BYD has a somewhat rocky history in California. In the past, the company has been accused of violating rules and failing to live up to its promises, according to reports by the Los Angeles Times and others. BYD has denied such charges.
A 2018 story by Paige St. John of the L.A. Times described BYD as a “skilled political operator” with a talent for getting public contracts.
“The company’s business model involves hiring lobbyists and grant writers to secure no-bid purchases by public agencies, and it has invited public officials on foreign junkets and employed their close associates,” wrote St. John.
BYD also has “a history of supplying allegedly faulty products to the U.S., ties to the Chinese military and Communist Party, and possible links to forced labor,” warned experts who talked to Vice News, which said BYD had been prohibited by law from bidding on some federal contracts.
“BYD also has no history of making personal protective equipment, and yet days after the FDA approval, it secured a $1 billion deal to supply masks to California,” reported Vice.
It’s understandable that Gov. Newsom acted quickly to procure necessary protection supplies in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. But his administration’s shifting excuses for hiding the contract don’t add up. …
When the state spends nearly a billion dollars, legislators must be allowed to do their jobs. … Among the questions legislators have asked: How much is California paying for this equipment? What are the quality standards? What are the timelines for delivery? …
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said he hopes the governor’s office will find a sensible way to honor the Legislature’s oversight role without a confrontation. The governor’s office says it will release partial information at some point, but legislators aren’t satisfied.
“This is risky business,” Nielsen said, referring to the deal. “The public should righteously be very concerned about it.” …
Hopefully, California’s leaders will avoid the need for dramatic steps. But the executive branch must honor transparency and allow oversight. If Newsom fails to respect the Legislature’s role, however, legislative leaders must do more than whine.
They must issue subpoenas and obtain the contract by force of law.
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