Greg Hughes and Democrats criticize lack of transparency in background meeting on state COVID-19 purchases

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Former House Speaker Greg Hughes answers a question during the gubernatorial debate at the 2020 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

Utah’s conservative former House speaker and his one-time Democratic colleagues found themselves in a rare moment of agreement Tuesday, as they questioned the transparency of a private state briefing on nearly $110 million in state coronavirus spending.

Officials invited a handful of reporters to the Tuesday morning meeting at the state’s Emergency Operations Center to share background information about state purchases and contracts entered into during the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — including ones that bypassed standard procurement procedure.

They interacted with reporters on the understanding that none of the information would be attributed to an individual, a condition that Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Hughes pounced on later in the day.

“Having an off-the-record briefing, about off-the-record, No Bid government contracts, is not my idea of transparency” Hughes said in a news release. “Even worse, a briefing by unelected and politically appointed managers is not leadership, it’s a way to pass the buck.”

The background presentation delivered to the news media Tuesday was different from an off-the-record meeting, in which none of the information can be shared with the public even without attribution. The Salt Lake Tribune attended the briefing, along with a representative from the Deseret News and from the state’s major TV outlets and radio stations.

A spokeswoman in the governor’s office, which organized the meeting, dismissed criticism of the background briefing, which she called a common practice “to help give broad context and better understanding on complex issues.”

“Today’s meeting was in no way secret, and we let attendees know that if they needed anything on the record, we would be happy to provide statements,” Anna Lenhardt, communications director in the Governor’s Office, continued in a statement. “Commissioner Jess Anderson also met with the press on the record for a significant period of time following the briefing.”

During the meeting, reporters heard from leaders with the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Public Safety and the Division of Purchasing and General Services. Their presentations centered around explaining the urgency state leaders felt as they entered into these no-bid contracts as the pandemic came to the United States and global supply chains faltered.

They also used the opportunity to unveil a new dashboard that provides a breakdown of some COVID-19-related purchases the state has made. A fact sheet distributed by Utah officials shows that the state has spent nearly $94 million responding to the pandemic and more than $14 million to cope with the economic consequences. Federal COVID-19 relief will offset some of these costs, they say.

Members of the House Democratic Caucus sought an invitation to the meeting, House Minority Leader Brian King said Tuesday, but they were not allowed in — a move he argued “lacks openhandedness and transparency.”

The Salt Lake City lawmaker said he feels the legislative body hasn’t received the information about state procurement procedures during the pandemic that he thinks it would need to make good policy decisions moving forward.

“We’re going to have this pandemic continue unfortunately for quite a while and we want to make sure the processes we go through for dealing with procurement in the future are something other than this no-bid approach to throw money at whatever vendor happens to approach us first or have connections or have the most attractive marketing spiel,” he said in an interview.

Amid mounting criticism about the state’s no-bid contracts, Gov. Gary Herbert said last week that COVID-19-related expenses will now be moving back to a “normal purchasing process,” though Utah is still in a declared state of emergency.

In his Tuesday news release, Hughes also took aim at Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is running for governor and heads the state’s coronavirus task force, for basking in the positive media coverage about the pandemic response but disappearing when difficult questions arise.

“I just think leadership is, you’re not the emcee for the big announcement. You’re not just the grand marshal for the victory parade,” Hughes said of his opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary. “You’re in the middle of it.”

Hughes came under fire during his time as House speaker for a lack of transparency when he killed a Medicaid expansion proposal in 2015 without any floor debate or votes after discussions in closed door Republican caucus meetings revealed there was little support for the bill.

Heather Barney, spokeswoman for the Cox campaign, referred questions about Tuesday’s briefing to the Governor’s Office.

But Barney said Cox has “answered many, many questions regarding his role helping combat the coronavirus by reporters from various Utah media outlets as a candidate and he has answered on the record.”

Hughes said he was suspending judgment on the state’s purchasing during the COVID-19 emergency but said people are asking legitimate questions about what the state is buying, how much they’re paying and what businesses are benefiting.

State purchasing officials several weeks ago announced an emergency exemption to normal competitive bidding and procurement processes so agencies and officials could respond to urgent needs for personal protective equipment, testing supplies and hand sanitizer.

Since then, critics have targeted a number of expenditures and contracts made under that process, including 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.