ALBANY (TNS) – Gov. Kathy Hochul claims when her government paid a vendor $637 million for COVID-19 tests last winter, she didn’t know the recipient was a campaign donor.
“I wasn’t aware that this was a company that had backed me,” Hochul told reporters at a July 20 news conference. “I’m not following that. My team, you have no idea.”
But a month before the Hochul government finalized the deals, the company’s founder held a personal fundraiser for Hochul, records show.
According to Hochul’s campaign disclosure forms, the November 22 fundraiser was hosted by Charlie Tebele, founder of Digital Gadgets LLC. A month later, the company would begin receiving $637 million in payments from the Hochul administration to facilitate the purchase of 52 million home-use rapid coronavirus tests.
The deal was made possible by Hochul’s revived suspension of competition rules on administration purchases of COVID-19 supplies — a policy change also introduced for a time by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Hochul issued an emergency order overriding these rules on November 26, four days after the Tebele fundraiser.
A Hochul spokeswoman did not directly address the governor’s July statement that she was unaware that Digital Gadgets had been linked to a campaign supporter.
Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokeswoman for Hochul, said the governor “did not oversee the procurement process and was not involved in day-to-day procurement decisions.”
“She simply directed her team to purchase as many available tests as possible to meet the tremendous need across the state, and they did just that to keep New Yorkers safe.” As we have always said, campaign contributions have no bearing on government decisions and we reject any other implication,” Crampton-Hays said.
The Tebele family has donated nearly $300,000 to Hochul’s campaign, and Tebele held two fundraisers for her campaign: one a month before the orders were filled, and one on April 10, two weeks after the payments were completed.
In cases involving other campaign donors, emails show that Hochul spoke at fundraisers on state government matters, and her campaign staff helped put these donors in touch with senior officials in Hochul’s executive chamber.
Tebele’s lawyer told the Times Union in July: “Mr. Tebele has never spoken to the governor about business (of the Ministry of Health) – ever.”
According to Digital Gadgets, Tebele never spoke to the Hochul campaign about providing the COVID-19 tests. Digital Gadgets, which previously received government contracts, “became aware of the need for testing based on public media reports,” according to the company.
Digital Gadgets declined to say how the company had been in contact with the Hochul administration regarding the sale. Hochul’s campaign declined to answer questions about interactions between its employees or the governor with the company.
In selling the antigen tests to New York, Tebele’s company charged a far higher price per test than other vendors the state used last winter. California bought the same test that Tebele was selling at 45 percent less per unit.
Unlike California, which bought the AccessBio “Carestart” test directly from the manufacturer, the Hochul administration bought it through Digital Gadgets, a third-party vendor, which made an unspecified cut.
On November 22, Tebele paid $5,150 for food, decorations and waiters for the Hochul campaign fundraiser, according to Hochul’s campaign documents. Charlie Tebele’s wife Nancy donated $18,000 to Hochul that day.
According to their schedules, Hochul attended two “private events” in the New York City area on the evening of November 22nd. During the same period, she frequently attended government meetings on the COVID-19 pandemic. High-level officials, including Director of State Operations Kathryn Garcia, were involved in the negotiations with Digital Gadgets.
Also in November, a younger member of the Tebele family began working as a paid intern for Hochul’s campaign fundraising staff, according to his LinkedIn profile. On December 15, Hochul’s campaign made its first payment to James Tebele, an undergraduate student at New York University who is listed in campaign records as having the same Manhattan address as Charlie and Nancy Tebele. James Tebele was later hired as the “financial officer” for the campaign.
On December 16, Hochul’s campaign received $20,000 from Leon Tebele, also listed as having the same Manhattan address as the couple.
Four days later, on December 20, Charlie Tebele made an offer to sell the Hochul government 26 million rapid coronavirus antigen tests for $13 apiece — an offer the Hochul government approved the same day.
On May 18, both Nancy and Charlie Tebele reached the maximum of $69,700 they could give to Hochul’s campaign. A number of other Tebele family members then made large donations, many on the same day, including several who had not made donations to the New York election in the past.
Hochul’s administration has claimed that only Digital Gadgets could deliver a significant number of rapid tests before schools reopen the week of January 3. The rapid tests were necessary to keep schools open after the winter break, a top priority for Hochul, which did not want a closure caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant. As of Jan. 3, the company provided about 1.5 million tests to the state, according to bills the company sent to the state health department.
The health department has declined to say whether New York could have bought more tests from other vendors at lower prices in late December. Just before New York signed its first order with Digital Gadgets on December 21 at $13 a test, the department had inked another contract for 5 million tests – at $5 apiece – with iHealth Labs.
The Hochul government said its efforts to secure millions of in-demand tests had been successful. In early January, over 95 percent of New York City school districts resumed in-person learning as major school districts across the country rolled out distance learning.