Bidding war drives multi-million dollar race for COVID-19 pandemic safety equipment

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent by Illinois officials to purchase personal protective equipment or PPE to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the global race for safety equipment, state procurement officials have had to change the way they find and pay for life-saving safety equipment.

Twice in March, Illinois State Comptroller officials drove multi-million dollar checks across the state, speeding to beat vendor deadlines. In a McDonald's parking lot just off I-55 in Dwight and in a Road Ranger gas station in Minonk, state officials met middlemen promising connections to safety masks and goggles.

"We just wanted to make sure that they had the proper equipment to take care of the people that are sick," said Cortez Gillespie, one of the Illinois State Comptroller office employees who drove checks across the state.

So far in the COVID-19 crisis, Illinois taxpayers have spent about $170 million on supplies to battle the pandemic, bidding against other states for scarce equipment.

"We're driving up the cost of these and so it costs the taxpayer. On the other side, if we don't buy them, people will die," said Ellen Andres, Illinois Assistant Comptroller.

State spending records reviewed by the I-Team show the massive financial cost of COVID-19- often in huge single payments. In one case, officials spent $13 million to buy 200 ventilators, that's $65,000 a unit. They're due to arrive next week. Records show another $12.9 million contract with a southwest suburban company for 10 million surgical masks. State officials tell the I-Team they've received 900,000 so far. A representative of the company behind that purchase told, "the State of IL bent over backwards to do everything they could to get us funding so we could secure prime placement in the production queue. With the states quick reaction and our overseas connections we were able to get massive numbers of masks out in a little over a week."

In total, Illinois taxpayers dollars have spent at least $46,850,695 on masks, $18,077,000 on gowns, $3,715,300 on gloves and $26,788,490 on ventilators.

All of this equipment is likely coming at a markup according to Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

"This is taxpayer money that is needlessly being wasted," said Mendoza.

She told the I-Team that a lack of federal coordination means that equipment is going for a premium. They're having to find and vet mostly foreign vendors using Illinois State Police and the FBI while speeding up the payment process to make sure Illinois doesn't lose out.

"It's just a hot mess," said Mendoza. "It would have been so much better for our state to be able to procure the goods from our own companies here in the United States of America."

The I-Team also uncovered two chartered FedEx flights scheduled for Shanghai China to bring PPE directly back to Illinois, at $888,275 a flight.

Late this afternoon, Jordan Abudayyeh, press secretary for Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, released this statement to the I-Team about the FedEx flights:

"The Governor has clearly outlined the challenges this administration has faced as we've worked around the clock to purchase PPE for our healthcare workers and first responders. The supply chain has been likened the wild west, and once you have purchased supplies ensuring they get to the state is another herculean feat. These flights are carrying millions of masks and gloves our workers need. They're scheduled to land in Illinois in the coming weeks and the state is working to ensure these much needed supplies are protected and ready for distribution around the state."
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