Accountability is fundamental for trust in government.
But Gov. Gavin Newsom, his administration and its state agencies have an accountability problem, and the pandemic has made it worse. One-man rule, combined with little-to-no public scrutiny of massive state contracts, calls California’s competence into question yet again. Already notorious examples include lengthy DMV wait times, Employment Development Department fraud, and “exaggerations” on wildfire prevention projects.
The latest example of a government failure involved the $1.7 billion state-funded no-bid contract awarded, with great fanfare by the governor, to PerkinElmer for a COVID testing lab in Valencia.
The California Department of Public Health contracted with the firm to process 150,000 COVID tests within 24-48 hours by March 2020. It has failed to meet that mark and has actually been “ranked among the slowest COVID labs in the state,” processing only about 25,000 tests per day.
In addition to the poor performance, whistleblowers exposed unlicensed lab techs sleeping on the job, a lack of supervision over untrained staff, contaminated tests, swapped samples, testing errors, a high rate of “inconclusive” results, and inaccurate results being given to people with no process for correcting the problem.
Worse, CDPH conducted an investigation of the lab – something an outside auditor should have done, not the very department that owns the lab and pays the contractor to operate it – and said it would release findings in mid-March. CDPH sat on the report for seven months, refusing to release it publicly despite a blizzard of scrutiny by the media and demands that CDPH release the report before the $1.7 billion no-bid contract auto-renewed. It wasn’t, and the contract was quietly renewed over Halloween weekend.
While Californians are asked to do more with less, government has become less and less accountable for what it does with our taxpayer dollars. Accountability is fundamental for trust in government, and on this, Gov. Newsom and these state agencies have failed the public. That is why I will be introducing two bills this session that stem from the Valencia branch lab fiasco to bring some sorely needed accountability back into play.
The first will subject no-bid state contracts of over $25 million to a Joint Legislative Budget Committee oversight hearing before the contract can be renewed. My proposal would ensure vigorous legislative oversight of these contracts so that the public can see how their tax dollars are being spent. After all, it is their money. The auto-renewal of the Valencia branch lab contract should never have happened – and I argue may not have happened – had there been any transparency or oversight on the contracts. At a minimum, an oversight hearing would have provided an opportunity to force the contractor to improve performance or lose the contract.
My second proposal would extend whistleblower protections that state employees already have under current law to employees of entities holding state contracts, like PerkinElmer. Often, whistleblowers bravely risk careers to shine a spotlight on a problem that would most likely continue had they not stepped forward. This legislation is necessary because we’ve learned that one of the whistleblowers is being sued by PerkinElmer, which alleges the employee illegally disclosed “confidential and proprietary information including ‘COVID-19 testing results, testing procedures and protocol, and testing equipment capabilities and performance.’”
Employees of private companies contracting with the state should have the same protections as state employees and be free to report waste, fraud, abuse of authority, violations of law, or threats to public health without fear of retaliation. PerkinElmer was tasked with helping California fight a pandemic by accurately verifying the testing results of individuals, schoolchildren and frontline workers. If Perkin-Elmer employees hadn’t been brave enough to blow the whistle on the serious deficiencies at the Valencia branch lab, it’s highly likely they would still be occurring, making our war against the pandemic that much harder. The Legislature and public would have never learned of the troubles occurring there and the abuse and waste of a ginormous amount of taxpayer dollars.
Our government must work for the people, protect those who expose violations of law, and provide full public transparency and input on contracts.
Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, represents the 21st Senate District, which encompasses the Antelope, Santa Clarita and Victor valleys.