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Hochul says company awarded over $600 million for test kits was a necessary expenditure

A rapid antigen test shows a positive test result for COVID-19.
Odd Andersen
AFP via Getty Images
A rapid antigen test shows a positive test result for COVID-19.

Questions have been raised over campaign donations made to New York Governor Kathy Hochul by a small, family-owned company during a time when they were paid over $600 million to deliver COVID tests to the state. But the governor said there’s no pay to play going on.

The owners of Digital Gadgets, a New Jersey based company that sells electronic devices, along with members of their family, contributed $300,000 in campaign donations to Governor Hochul over the past several months, as reported in the Albany Times Union. During that time period the paper found the company, run by the Tebele family, received $637 million from the state health department for sales of at-home COVID-19 tests.

The transactions are documented on the State Comptroller’s website, known as OpenBookNY but the comptroller did not have to sign off on the payments, as is required for most state contracts.

That’s because Hochul and the health department are operating under emergency powers authorized during the COVID-19 pandemic, which the governor has extended monthly.

Hochul’s political opponents said the payments raise red flags. Until the pandemic, the company was not involved in selling medical supplies.

State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy is filing a Freedom of Information Request.

“I’m calling on Governor Hochul and the Department of Health to turn over all of their communications with the Tebele family and Digital Gadgets,” Langworthy said. “New Yorkers need to know who our government spoke to and when they spoke to them and what was discussed.”

Langworthy said the governor should give a referral to the state Attorney General’s office for an investigation, and he said he’s also asked the U.S. Attorney to look into it.

Hochul said there’s nothing nefarious going on. She said the state simply had to act quickly last winter during the Omicron surge to deliver test kits to schools and other facilities, and the company was able to locate and produce tests quickly. She said she needed the flexibility provided under the emergency pandemic rules.

“The fact that there was someone who could meet that need at the time allowed us to deliver critically important test kits when nobody else, including the federal government, could get their hands on them,” Hochul said. “As a result we got kids back in school in January as opposed to them sitting home another semester.”

And she said she didn’t know the Tebele family donated to her campaign.

“I was not aware that this was a company that had been supportive of me,” said Hochul. “I don’t keep track of that.”

Hochul and her aides said Digital Gadgets was not the only company to provide the tests, though it did produce the largest number of kits. They said there were other companies involved as well.

Earlier in the week Hochul extended the emergency pandemic rules, until August 13.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.