Md. board scrutiny puts pause on more than $4.8M in COVID-19-related emergency contracts

Three emergency contracts for services related to Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts were deferred after members of the Maryland Board of Public Works (BPW) raised questions about what the state is getting for its money.

The Board voted 2-1 to delay approval of the contracts, pending further review.

Comptroller Peter Franchot and Maryland state Treasurer Nancy Kopp raised questions about transparency regarding the contracts sought by the Maryland Department of Health.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, attending the BPW meeting in place of Gov. Larry Hogan, voted to approve the three contracts.

Franchot singled out a $3.79 million contract with Ernst & Young, and asked “What exactly are we paying Ernst & Young millions of dollars to do that we couldn’t do with our own staff?”

Webster Ye, assistant secretary for health policy with the Maryland Department of Health said the firm provided data analysis of the state’s wide-ranging vaccination plan. Ye said that the firm’s work has been able to provide clear figures on the state’s performance related to getting “shots in arms.”

The help was needed, according to Ye, because of the nature of the coronavirus pandemic.

“You know, we are not on constant standby for a once-in-a-century pandemic — that would not be efficient use of government resources,” Ye said.

Ye said Ernst & Young provided detailed forensic analysis and “good, solid accounting principles, which — I will admit — which is not something that the Maryland Department of Health normally employs.”

Franchot was not impressed.

“I find it hard to believe that someone at MDH with a sharp pencil could not have determined that,” Franchot said of the services provided by the New York-based firm.

Rutherford, known for his typically button-down demeanor, became impatient with Franchot’s probing.

“Come on,” he said to Franchot. “I’m not sure where you’re going with this, but it doesn’t work that way — you use contractors in your facility, as well.”

Rutherford agreed with Ye, saying the state simply doesn’t have the large-scale staff to conduct the kind of work the Ernst & Young teams are doing for the coronavirus vaccination program in Maryland.

Rutherford also pushed back against proposals by some state legislators calling for more oversight of emergency contracts.

“I don’t think they really understand the procurement process. I don’t think they realize how impractical it is to notify the legislature on every emergency procurement,” Rutherford said.

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Some emergency contracts are pursued to address immediate needs, such as plumbing emergencies, he said.

“Many of these emergencies occur after business hours,” Rutherford said.

Franchot said aside from not being clear on exactly what the contractors from Ernst & Young are doing, he was appalled that a number of submissions from the Department of Health related to emergency contracts were late.

“Nine of the 11 awards submitted by MDH today are late. I’m not talking about a couple of days late, I’m talking weeks and months late.”

There were also questions about what was contained in a report due from Ernst & Young. Ye told the three board members: “We didn’t ask for a report to stick on a bookshelf and look pretty.”

That remark prompted Kopp to tell Ye, “I have great respect for Ernst & Young, and I think it was a good idea to hire them. I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep secret however, what their report was, since we did pay for it.”

The final 2-1 vote means several contracts will have to go before the board again for approval.

That includes the nearly $3.8 million contract from Ernst & Young, a $330,000 contract from the Berkeley Research Group for a “patient surge task force consultant” and a $723,480 contract with KPMG LLP for a “surge staffing plan consultant” to provide “resource planning, data analysis, consulting and project management services with expanded tasks.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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