The final discouraging example is that of the nearly $300,000 entrepreneur Charlie Tebele invested in Hochul’s gubernatorial campaign. Like the Albany Union Times reports, Tebel’s company, Digital Gadgets LLC, has received $637 million in government funds since December to provide the state Department of Health with at-home Covid-19 testing kits. The DOH, controlled by Hochul, has never issued a tender. Purchase orders placed by the DOH were not reviewed by the state comptroller’s office.
The lack of oversight stems from the pandemic-era emergency powers that Hochul still enjoys. Last November, she signed an executive order declaring a new Covid-19 state of emergency and suspending certain aspects of the state finance law, including tenders for certain contracts as well as the normal process of review and approval of contracts conducted by the state comptroller’s office. Even as the pandemic, in terms of the death toll in the state, waned, Hochul extended the executive order on a monthly basis. It is due to expire on August 13.
Does Tebele’s money allow his company to be rewarded with a permanent contract with the state? Hochul would deny this, although there is no doubt that such gifts are noticed. Digital Gadgets, which shifted from selling hoverboards and other electronics to home testing kits after the Covid hit, may want to work more with Hochul in the future. As long as its emergency powers remain in effect, the company will have an easy and lucrative sinecure with the state.
The governor did not respond to the Union Times story, but a Hochul adviser, Bryan Lesswing, said the administration has spoken to multiple vendors. He said Digital Gadgets was the only company able to provide enough tests before schools reopened in early January 2022. Lesswing said Digital Gadgets charged $13 per test in one case and $11.50 in the other.
At a minimum, the Hochul’s emergency powers should not be extended in August. State lawmakers should oppose her and pressure her to return oversight to the state comptroller’s office. Covid will be with us for a long time, but there’s no reason Hochul’s DOH can’t fight it with the conventional executive authority any governor would enjoy. We are no longer in a hurry and it is time to stop exploiting the tragedies of the past to evade the bidding process.
Beyond emergency powers, Hochul should think about how she wants to govern now that she appears to be heading for a full term. Republican Lee Zeldin is unlikely to beat her in November. Like Cuomo, she can preside over the state for many years. What kind of governor does she want to be? So far, she’s made incremental moves in the direction of transparency and sanity, only to step back and default to a Cuomo-like posture. With virtually no outside input, she rushed through a $1 billion taxpayer grant for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, pumping it into the state’s annual budget so most lawmakers would have to support it or cut down the entire budget. She’s nicer than Cuomo — no lawmakers or staffers yelled at, bullied, or harassed — but much of the change so far has been in style, not substantive variety.
Digital Gadgets is emblematic of this. If Hochul was interested in avoiding the appearance of impropriety, she would announce a ban on campaign donations from any person or company that does direct business with the state and immediately return all of Tebele’s money. It would be the gesture of someone who really wants to clean up Albany. Hochul is not there.