Appearing in the president’s Twitter mentions has, incredibly, finally paid off for somebody: a random Silicon Valley-based electrical engineer named Yaron Oren-Pines who scored a $69.1 million contract with the state of New York after he tweeted at Trump, “We can supply ICU Ventilators, invasive and noninvasive. Have someone call me URGENT.”
Per BuzzFeed News, Oren-Pines has only a handful of followers on Twitter and seemingly lacks any background in medical technology or government contracting. Yet coronavirus-stricken New York paid him $69.1 million on March 30 to provide 1,450 ventilators to medical centers throughout the state, or the exorbitant price of $47,756 a unit. (Congress is currently looking into a federal contract at the far lower price of $15,000 a unit for possible price gouging.) Oren-Pines has not delivered a single one, the contract has been terminated, and the state is still trying to recover at least a portion of its money. News of the contract seems to have been first dug up by the Times Union.
Oren-Pines got paid on March 30, three days after sending the reply to a Trump tweet demanding that General Motors produce more ventilators, according to BuzzFeed. A state official told the site on background that “The guy was recommended to us by the White House coronavirus task force because they were doing business with him as well,” though federal databases show no such contracts and the White House, the vice president’s office, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency all declined to comment to BuzzFeed.
The deal was the New York Department of Health’s single biggest contractual payment under an emergency order by Governor Andrew Cuomo removing bureaucratic barriers in the state government’s procurement pipeline. That included competitive bidding and suspension of normal safeguards that would occur before the state actually transferred money, which seems to have backfired big time as it doled out around $735 million in contracts to secure desperately needed medical gear and equipment.
Of the 77 contracts of $1 million or more the department signed between March 19 and April 27, according to BuzzFeed, the “overwhelming majority” were with companies whose core businesses are unrelated to medical supply chains, including a Chinese iron ore distributor, a beauty products firm, private equity goons, and Qatar’s state-run foreign aid fund. The Times-Union reported that as of April 20, 22 of the 25 vendors who received the largest payments had never before worked with the state government.
Cuomo adviser Rich Azzopardi told the Times Union that 25 state officials had been involved in vetting the purchases and received referrals from the White House, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., and regional Chinese Departments of Commerce that had pre-existing business relationships with New York. He also said about 10 percent of the offers were actually pursued.
Other deals for ventilators include a $116 million contract with a Brooklyn ventilator-rental company for 5,700 units that fell through, as well as a $32.3 million contract with a Tampa-based orthopedics supply firm, BuzzFeed wrote. However, nothing in Oren-Pines’ background seems to indicate he’d be a go-to guy for ventilators or any other medical equipment, with his resume on LinkedIn including unrelated work at Google and magnetic computer memory firm Crocus Technology. BuzzFeed wrote he also co-founded Legasus Networks (which is now possibly inactive) and a mobile phone consultancy called InCommon that lacks a public record trail.
The only hints include a Twitter profile he’s used to tweet at the president and a mutual follow with Israeli entrepreneur Segev Binyamin, who BuzzFeed found had at around the same time tweeted at an Israeli government official: “I own a Chinese company and have the ability to ship 1,400 machines.” He declined to comment to BuzzFeed.
“We had no choice but to overturn every rock to find ventilators and other needed equipment,” Azzopardi told BuzzFeed. “… States were forced to fend for themselves to purchase lifesaving supplies to combat a global pandemic and with all modeling showing a more severe spread of this virus with more hospitalizations and more fatalities.”
The New York Office of General Services told BuzzFeed in a statement that the “bulk” of Oren-Pines’ payout has already been “returned to the state.”
Correction, 4/29/2020 at 10:15 p.m.: A prior version of this article identified the $69 million deal as the “single largest contract” under Cuomo’s order. It’s actually the second biggest deal, though it remains the single largest payment. We regret the error.