Utah Legislature poised to adopt new rules for emergency state purchases after COVID-19 controversies

Bill’s sponsor says it would help plug holes in the state’s procurement code identified in an audit.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Workers organize supplies at the Receiving, Staging and Shipping Center at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, May 8, 2020. The center served as a central location for personal protective equipment received by the State of Utah and sent to hospitals, local health departments and emergency managers.

The Utah Senate voted unanimously Friday in support of a proposal to rein in the emergency spending powers of the state’s executive branch — a move that follows months of scrutiny over the tens of millions of dollars that were spent on controversial no-bid state contracts in the early days of the pandemic.

In the absence of competitive bidding, public records showed that personal connections and CEO suggestions guided state officials as they formulated a coronavirus response plan and hunted down critical supplies. And a state audit last year found that leaders had little documentation of due diligence in entering some of those contracts.

Sen. Dan McCay, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said Friday that the proposal “will help clarify some of the issues” related to COVID-19 purchases that were raised in that audit.

If ultimately signed by the governor, HB43 would establish an end date for contracts entered into outside of normal purchasing processes. No-bid agreements related to a natural disaster — such as an explosion, fire, flood, storm, tornado or windstorm — could last no longer than 60 days under the proposed legislation, while all other emergency procurement contracts, including those related to a pandemic, could last no longer than 30 days.

“After 30 days in the case of an emergency, an agency will need to allow normal competitive bid processes in the procurement code,” McCay noted.

The Utah Department of Health confirmed as recently as November that the state continues to pay $300,000 monthly to the company Twenty for an app that originally was intended to do contract tracing but has primary been used as a symptom checker. The contract was due to expire in March.

Procurement officials would also be required under HB43 to make certain information publicly available within two weeks of an emergency purchase, including copies of each written contract and the name of the highest ranking government official who approved it.

That provision comes amid still-unresolved questions about who was responsible for authorizing one of the state’s most controversial emergency purchases: an $800,000 order for hydroxychloroquine from a Utah pharmacist who had amassed the anti-malaria drug and was working behind the scenes with officials to distribute the unproven medication statewide for coronavirus patients.

Former Gov. Gary Herbert ultimately canceled the order from Meds in Motion after public outcry. But state auditors later said that they couldn’t determine who’d given the OK for the spending on the anti-malaria drug.

HB43 requires one final procedural vote in the Senate before moving to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.