RIOC’s lawbreaking COVID testing hustle. Was it the absolute worst?

RIOC’s lawbreaking COVID testing hustle. Was it the absolute worst?

No question, setting up a local COVID testing site was a good idea. But RIOC seems to have thrown out public purchasing rules as well as any accountability in the undertaking. Was it a hustle or just incredibly inept and unethical? Sadly, we can’t answer that because they are either hiding or have lost key documents.

By David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Following is Part One of a series.

RIOC COVID Testing: Off the Rails In So Many Places, But What Went First?

RIOC COVID Testing Site, Under Construction
Tearing out what was left of the old New York Public Library, RIOC rebuilt the site as a COVID testing center. But the state agency did not answer a clear question about the costs.

Accountability is a key element in governing. That’s especially true on Roosevelt Island because residents have so little say in how the state collects and spends money demanded from them. Trust in RIOC is crucial but impossible because RIOC operates in what activist Frank Farance dubbed “bunker mode.” Bunker mode is defensive and secretive.

Nowhere is that more true than with the Swift COVID-19 Rapid Testing Site that opened in January. But what are they hiding inside the bunker? Plenty, we found out from a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. And plenty more they’ve refused to disclose.

Where did the project go off the rails? Hard to say because it doesn’t appear it was ever on the rails.

Procurement Contracts are to be awarded on a competitive basis to the maximum extent practicable. Such awards are generally made after notice is published in the New York State Contract Reporter where the amount of the contract is equal to or greater than $50,000 and, after the evaluation of proposals obtained, whenever practicable, from at least three qualified vendors or respondents

RIOC Purchasing Guidelines

Lost out of the gate…

Because RIOC did not provide a single email in their FOIL response, we don’t know how their COVID testing effort started. All we have is a partial collection of documents telling us that RIOC skirted purchasing until well into the process. Mary Cunneen, Director of Organizational Efficiency & Special Projects, collected proposals, but RIOC did not turn over records of any criteria for them. Apparently, interested parties pretty much winged it.

There is no evidence of purchasing professionals’ involvement until Purchasing Manager Amy Firestein cut a $159,000 purchase order, just five days before the testing site opened. It obligated RIOC to pay Swift Emergency Care, P.C., based on criteria they failed to meet but were paid anyway. But it does not appear that minimum state or RIOC purchasing requirements were met. And later evidence suggests questionable or openly dishonest claims in play in justifying the award to state overseers.

But where did Swift come from…?

Swift Emergency Medical had no prior experience in running a COVID testing site. In fact, the address on the purchase order is a now vacant three-bedroom condo at “460 East 79th st #2B.” And the proposal on which it’s based doesn’t include any address except that of a non-functioning webpage: http://swiftectesting.com/.

Swifts initial proposal, dated November 20th, 2020, riddled with illiteracies, does not square up with a $159,000 purchase order signed by Firestein. And even with a six-figure purchase order, there is no contract, just a loose set of requirements.

Swift’s claim of minority ownership, while using a different company name than the one to whom the P.O. is written, is curious because Firestein, a month after the contract started, requests a waiver of MWBE goals for the deal.

Who supervised Cunneen?

While Mary Cunneen may or may not have known the rules for public purchasing in New York when she reached out for proposals, RIOC President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes was engaged long before purchase orders were signed. On November 23rd, a week before Swift’s slipshod proposal came in, he signed a deal with Hudson Related for use of the old NYPL space.

Shelton Haynes
President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes played a crucial role in establishing Swift’s COVID testing site.

Hudson-Related is master leaseholder for Main Street retail, responsible for 526 Main Street, site of the COVID testing operation. H-R generously charged RIOC only $1 per month.

“It was our contribution to battling Covid,” Hudson President David Kramer told The Daily.

“As long as we were still able to show the space to prospective tenants, we thought it was an important interim use for the island.”

RIOC then, on December 8th, leased the space to Swift for the same monthly sum. This was just a little over a week after Swift’s proposal reached Cunneen. A month before Firestein’s purchase order, Haynes committed RIOC to a deal. But no evidence exists that the state made any effort at verifying Swift’s qualifications or experience. And nothing shows anything resembling consideration of other offers.

According to RIOC, Swift’s initial Department of Health approval for testing at 526 Main Street is dated January 12, 2021. For the record, that’s the day Firestein issued a $159,000 purchase order and a month after Haynes signed off on a lease.

Bottom line, it appears that Cunneen reported directly to Haynes throughout. That may explain why purchasing professionals were bypassed until the deal was done.

Complications and Mysteries

Prior to the Haynes administration at RIOC, the state agency had a better than average for New York record for transparency in FOIL responses. Predecessor Susan Rosenthal oversaw releases shining a bad light on RIOC, including her own actions. But that ceased with Haynes’s promotion along with a near total media blackout.

As we’ve noted before, government officials with nothing to hide don’t hide anything. Good government is awash with information displaying trustworthy actions and careful handling of funds. With the deep secrecy on Roosevelt Island, none of that is true.

Among the things we don’t know because RIOC has not made a full disclosure are crucial purchasing details. At an April board meeting, Cunneen disclosed that she received a list of six possible providers of COVID testing from the state Department of Health. Swift was not among them. Yet, RIOC provided records of only one other bidder.

That was Maxim Healthcare Staffing, a national provider with over 100 offices. “Maxim’s Long Island office is well-positioned to fulfill the Roosevelt Island COVID Testing Center staffing requirements within the most advantageous timeframe,” they wrote in their proposal.

Compare with Swift’s illiterate, “Clearly, COVID-19 tests and operations cost money and would like to partner with interested organizations to help alleviate the pandemics toll.”

How did RIOC determine Swift the best potential provider? And why weren’t there more proposals?

We don’t know because RIOC’s hiding internal documents that might provide clues, and that’s a bad sign.

In Part Two, we will deal with what happened next and the fallout.

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