The news that California Governor Gavin Newsom deviated from his state’s usual procedures in awarding contracts to a China-based manufacturer during the domestic economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic comes at a particularly vexing moment for the governor.
Documents obtained by Judicial Watch present a clearer picture of how the embattled Newsom brokered a nearly $1 billion deal with a privately-owned Chinese-based company to provide the Golden State with 300 million N95 masks. Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton commented:
“It would surprise Americans to see how a major Chinese company can so easily access government officials. I would think the California legislature would be interested in how this happened.”
Members of California’s legislature had previously sought to obtain details of the $990 million deal one senior Democratic lawbreaker described as “murky.” But Governor Newsom was evasive as the contract was being realized, declining a comment request from the Los Angeles Times and others. The documents released this week included mainly internal emails and showed that lobbyists played an outsized role in securing the contract.
BYD (Build Your Dreams) is a publicly-traded company funded in part by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which contributed nearly a quarter stake to it in 2008. The corporation’s primary business is producing electric cars, but after the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 was passed during Donald Trump’s tenure, federal funding for buying public transportation vehicles by any companies affiliated with China was prohibited. According to a company press release, BYD subsequently pivoted to manufacturing masks and quickly claimed to have the “world’s largest, mass-produced face mask plant” in Shenzhen, China.
BYD spokesperson Frank Girardot has been critical of the N.D.A.A. legislation saying: “It’s an effort by our competitors to keep us out of the market. Quite frankly, they don’t make the same quality of product that we do.” Girardot went on to state:
“The masks for California were made in China because there was already a BYD plant there making masks, and there was no time to act to build a new factory in the U.S.”
BYD does have an existing manufacturing plant in Los Angeles, but it may have been financially impractical to quickly retro-fit it to make masks. It also may not be large enough to have been able to fulfill the billion-dollar contract with California. As a result, the Shenzhen plant in China was tapped to make the 300 million N95 masks agreed to by Governor Newsom.
Before much data on anything was available during the early months of the pandemic, decision-making at the top levels was fraught with the possibility of making poor choices in a vacuum, bereft of critical information. In early 2020, masks were quickly becoming a recommendation by officials who had previously dismissed their efficacy. Still, the optics for a governor who obscured the BYD contract’s details from even Rachel Maddow on television are not good, now that these documents have been released.
Newsom may already be facing a recall vote over his broader coronavirus response, if the 1.5 million signatures required to add it to the state ballot are secured by March. At present, more than 1.1 million signatures have already been collected – an effort that gained momentum after the governor flouted the very COVID-19 guidelines and mandates by which he insisted all Californians must abide.
In any event, the details of California’s near billion-dollar face mask contract with a Chinese-based manufacturer may be somewhat moot as the expectation with the advent of the Biden administration is for a far less adversarial relationship with China. However, this may be cold comfort to Governor Newsom, who is sustaining one public relations black eye after another in advance of a potential recall.
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