Utah Legislature and the state’s auditor will probe emergency spending during coronavirus pandemic

On the heels of a canceled $800,000 contract to buy anti-malarial drugs as a weapon against COVID-19, Utah’s state auditor and Legislature will examine how the state is spending emergency money in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re allocating a lot of money — there’s a lot of moving parts,” Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said Monday. Daw is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, which will next meet in an interim session in June.

“It’s always good to take a breath," Daw said, “and make sure we’re not getting ahead of ourselves or behind ourselves.”

The committee, he said, will likely hear from officials at the Utah Department of Health, as well as members of Gov. Gary Herbert’s COVID-19 task force, headed by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Meanwhile, John Dougall, the state’s auditor, confirmed Monday that his office is “reviewing an array of state purchases which circumvented standard procurement procedures," which are allowed in emergencies. He will look at the approval process, the reasonableness of the purchases, and the payment procedures.

The first purchases Dougall will examine, he said Monday via email, are those that required wire transfers, rather than the standard payment procedures. Those add up to more than $50 million so far, but that number will likely grow, Dougall said.

The state’s chief procurement officer, Dougall said, “anticipated this type of review as the state engaged in these nonstandard procedures for emergency purposes.”

Since March 24, Utah officials have issued more than 300 purchase orders for supplies, totaling about $70 million, under an emergency protocol that bypasses standard procurement procedures.

One expenditure that has drawn scrutiny in recent news reports is an $800,000 contract with Draper-based Meds in Motion to procure 20,000 units of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that briefly was touted as a possible treatment for COVID-19. Questions about how the deal came to pass, and a Food and Drug Administration recommendation against prescribing the drug for COVID-19 patients, led Herbert to cancel the contract. Meds in Motion returned the money.

An internal review in Herbert’s office found some communication failures but no deliberate wrongdoing in the state’s handling of the contract, and Daw said he has “no reason to dispute that.”

“There’s a lot of water that’s going to pass under the bridge between now" and the committee’s June meeting, Daw said. “Right now, we’re just keeping an eye on what’s going being done.”