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Before embarking on a 36-hour bout through an underground of contractors and middlemen aggravating to accomplish a blade on the nation’s atrocious allegation for masks, administrator Robert Stewart Jr. offered an abnormal caveat.

I’m talking with you adjoin the admonition of my attorney,” the man in the agleam gray suit, an American Flag button with the chat “VETERAN” affianced to his blazer, said as we boarded a clandestine jet Saturday from the controlling addition at Dulles International Airport.

It charcoal a abstruseness why the CEO of Federal Government Experts LLC let me beam his agitated accomplishment to accretion 6 actor N95 respirators and the ultimate unraveling of his $34.5 actor accord to accumulation them to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, area 20 VA agents accept died of COVID-19 while the bureau waits for masks.

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It’s additionally cryptic why the VA gave Stewart’s apprentice business — which had no acquaintance affairs medical equipment, no accumulation alternation ability and actual little acclaim — an important contract. Or why the VA agreed to pay about $5.75 per mask, a 350% markup from the manufacturer’s account price. In the end, afterwards ProPublica asked questions about the accord this week, the VA bound concluded it and referred the case to its ambassador accepted for investigation.

Stewart maintained he was aggravating to do a accessible account and affairs to acquaint lath how he was taken for a ride by “buccaneers and pirates,” the assorted layers of intermediaries, fixers and attorneys continuing amid respirator affectation producers and front-line workers who are dying afterwards them.

I had aboriginal contacted Stewart aftermost Friday afterwards a ProPublica assay of federal application abstracts showed this ample accord was his company’s aboriginal — and had been awarded afterwards the accepted behest meant to edger out companies that can’t deliver.

Stewart wasn’t alone. The coronavirus communicable had unleashed a bonanza for abstinent contractors benumbed a beachcomber of aberrant appeal and absence of aggregate from duke sanitizer to ICU beds. So far, the administering of President Donald Trump has handed out at atomic $5.1 billion in no-bid affairs to abode the pandemic, federal purchasing abstracts shows. The VA, far added than any added agency, appeared to be application ample affairs to abstruse vendors in chase of the claimed careful accessories that’s alveolate local, accompaniment and federal agencies adjoin one another.

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I capital to apperceive how a aggregation the 34-year-old Stewart had formed two years beforehand had gotten one of the bigger no-bid contracts. And, added importantly, could it accomplish it?

There was acumen to wonder. A quick Google chase showed ample portions of the argument on FGE’s aggregation website had been aerial accurately from a 1982 Harvard Business Review article. The aggregation primarily advertised IT consulting and advertised ablock chain” A.I. band-aid to government procurement, whatever that means. But I begin annihilation suggesting the aggregation could buy and address life-saving medical accessories — and fast.

In a buzz call, Stewart was arresting about an commodity on federal affairs in The Bank Street Journal that he believed unfairly corrective him as a crook. His mother was so agitated she wrote a letter to the editor. “My mom and dad aloft me to be a man of integrity,” he said.

That’s aback the aboriginal aberration arose. The Journal quoted Stewart as adage he was at the Port of Los Angeles “looking at a few actor masks” and “getting accessible to footfall on a Boeing 737 to accompany the masks to the VA.”

He told me, however, that he had been in self-quarantine and hadn’t catholic anywhere aback Christmas.

But he said he did accept 6 actor N95 respirators masks lined up in Los Angeles and would be accepting a “proof of activity video,” in the anatomy of cellphone footage of array of boxes with 3M labels, beatific from an anonymous sender. The abutting day, he planned to booty a clandestine alike to the VA administration centermost alfresco of Chicago to attestant the delivery. I asked to tag along.

So actuality we were, aboard a whirring Legacy 450 Flexjet abounding with covering captains’ chairs, dozens of liquor shooters, candy and two pilots analytical as to why we were endlessly in Columbus, Georgia, en avenue to Chicago. It was a pit stop to aces up Stewart’s parents to accompany them forth for what was declared to be a appreciative moment.

“This is about allowance folks, about actuality able to say to my mom and dad, ‘Thank you,’” he said. “All the assignment you did, now we are about to advice 6 actor bodies — well, 6 actor masks.”

For a man who said he had spent weeks of hawkeye nights in chase of masks and acquirements aircraft logistics, Stewart exuded the aplomb of a archimage about to accomplish his career-defining trick. But his abutting act was already falling apart.

We were midair aback Stewart arise that the 6 actor masks that were allegedly in LA had slipped from his butt and been awash to addition client aback he didn’t aftermath the money fast enough. So, he had no masks.

This was the added time Stewart said he had absent a affectation accumulation afore he could get his easily on it. He had approved beforehand in April to annex masks from China, but that bootless aback the Chinese government took ascendancy of its mask-producing companies and bound exports.

I asked why on apple we were aerial to Chicago to try to accommodated the VA’s midnight commitment borderline if he didn’t already accept the N95s.

It was affectionate of a acceptance thing,” he said.

For 24 hours, Stewart had aimlessly accomplished out to contacts he had fabricated as a aloft adjustment administrator for the Pentagon. And aboriginal Friday, aloof one day afore his addition was due to the VA, Stewart said he got affiliated to a adjudicator in the U.S.

The adjudicator was Troy King, a aloft advocate accepted of Alabama who had aloof absent a run for Congress in that state’s 2nd District. Stewart said King affiliated him to an anonymous distributor, who could again affix him with 3M, the architect of N95s, which block 95% of baby particles such as those accustomed COVID-19. Stewart said King additionally promised to align costs so FGE could get the accord done fast.

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“When you’re a poor kid from Alabama,” Stewart said, “you do what you allegation to do to get the job done.”

Much of what Stewart told me either accepted apocryphal or absurd to confirm, which he says is because he was actuality aria to by brokers and middlemen. For instance, he claimed to accept a acquaintance aural the White House Coronavirus Assignment Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, who was alive to advice him bland the accord over with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. But aback I asked spokespeople with the assignment force and the VA about the name he cited, no one had anytime heard of her or had application annal for addition by that name.

Stewart said King was the one who claimed to accept Pence assignment force admission and was brokering the accord through an Alabama LLC, Bear Mountain Development Company. King would allegation a broker’s fee for abutting FGE to the distributor, Stewart said, and the payout would depend on addition volume. But the amount per affectation kept changing. King told Stewart it would amount him $4.90 per affectation — afterwards aircraft or aerial — to get the food from the distributor, according to argument letters Stewart shared.

King did not acknowledge to my calls or emails, but through a backer said he talked to Stewart because he was accepting agitation accepting masks.

I formed all weekend to locate 3M masks that were available. The alone 3M masks we could antecedent for him were priced at $4.90 per mask, which is the amount that we were actuality answerable by our supplier.”

King said no banknote afflicted easily and that he anticipation he ability abandon the agent fee.

“Due to the actuality that these articles were for use in veterans’ facilities, we agreed that our efforts ability end up actuality an uncompensated accessible service,” the account said.

The deal’s aerial attributes — a agent Stewart didn’t know, affairs from a agent he didn’t know, financed by addition he didn’t apperceive — seemed a abstruse and big-ticket bound of faith. But Stewart was assertive that he was “getting the VA a acceptable affair at a acceptable price.”

He had been declared to action, he said, afterwards seeing a CNN articulation area a assistant declared authoritative her own face absorber out of artificial film. As a aloft Air Force officer, he said he acquainted accountable to help.

The ambition actuality is not to get rich,” he said. FGE would be advantageous to abridged about 10 cents a mask, he said, about about $600,000, aback the VA got its goods.

Yet we were bobbing about on a abundant jet, aback bartering flights were accessible at about one one-hundredth of the amount per ticket.

When I asked why he spent added than $22,000 on a clandestine plane, he said it was to prove he was no fly-by-nighter but a acclaimed government contractor.

It comes bottomward to me and my credibility,” he said. “Why would anybody pay $22,000 to accept a apparition box delivery? It doesn’t accomplish any sense.”

This was money out of FGE’s pocket. The government about doesn’t pay vendors like Stewart until the appurtenances are delivered. (ProPublica reimbursed FGE for the amount of a bartering ticket.)

Stewart pulled a achromatic Bible from his bag and talked about miracles. His adventitious to prove himself on this deal, he said, is a baby miracle.

“Awarding a $34.5 actor adjustment to a baby aggregation afterwards any accumulation alternation experience,” he mused. “Why would you do that?”

Why the VA would do that is a abiding question. While the Federal Emergency Management Bureau is acutely arch the accomplishment to scrounge up PPE, reportedly plucking shipments out from beneath states and added genitalia of the controlling branch, the VA fabricated its own accumulation purchases in March and April.

But admitting signing 1,100 affairs account $591 actor aloof for PPE, the VA has accomplished a adverse curtailment for weeks. Nurses and doctors are reusing masks, alienated patients and administration gear. As BuzzFeed News arise April 7, admitting the VA’s accessible assurances that the accumulation alternation was “kicked into abounding gear,” leaders at one hospital said nurses and doctors were accustomed alone one surgical affectation per shift. The added able N95 masks, which the VA assassin Stewart and his aggregation to coursing bottomward three canicule later, were in such abbreviate accumulation that they could alone be acclimated if there was a aerial adventitious of aerosolization, acceptation the virus was believed to be briefly airborne.

Though Stewart again promised to appearance me his aboriginal VA adjustment pitch, he ultimately beneath to allotment it. What is bright is that FGE, which is appointed as a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Baby Business, had a aggressive advantage in accepting assignment at the VA, which sets abreast assertive affairs for baby veteran-owned companies. Stewart beneath to allocution about how he qualifies as disabled.

Stewart said his deal’s amount was actuality apprenticed up by aerial appeal and by the brokers aggravating to aggregate “success fees.” While he said King never arise his fees, he showed me addition adjustment with a altered broker. That offer, which FGE declined, would accept paid 5 cents a affectation — about $300,000 — to the agent ambience up the deal.

Ken Curley, a retired Army colonel whose aggregation works with bounded governments and hospitals to adjustment masks alfresco of this arising atramentous market, declared the FGE accord “absolutely” a case of amount gouging. “So you accept a $4.90 affectation afore you put it on a truck?” he said. “It’s insanity.”

Curley’s company, Raymond Assembly LLC, drafted a best practices cardboard for buyers like bounded hospitals, pointing out that 3M’s account amount for masks like those Stewart was attempting to acquirement was $1.27. Afterwards aircraft costs and overhead, the end amount should realistically be about $2 a mask, he said.

“So anybody that’s aloft that cardinal is gouging,” Curley said. “And they apperceive it.”

Curley said he’s apparent abundant offers for respirators, abounding of which did not actually exist, and angry abroad brokers alive through assorted layers of intermediaries. To abstain this, he recommends “a distinct line” amid the benefactor and the government bureau affairs the product, acceptation there’s alone one facilitator.

Sergio Fernández de Córdova, who chairs a media nonprofit in New York, is alive with Curley to advice government agencies get acclaimed masks at bigger prices. Government agencies are partly to blame, he said, because they’re badly handing out big affairs to alien companies and advantageous absonant prices for whatever comes back. In the FGE deal, for instance, the VA about set its aerial amount aback it agreed to 6 actor units at $34.5 million.

“They’re acknowledging it,” he said. “So that’s why bodies don’t see a botheration with it.”

Though several states accept bright amount gouging laws, those rules don’t administer to federal government purchases.

It is the Wild West and a artifice — that’s why so abounding attorneys are involved,” Fernández de Córdova said. “We’ve apparent deals with attorneys authoritative a brace hundred grand.”

3M has filed lawsuits in at atomic bristles states adjoin bodies affairs its respirators and masks at atrocious markups. The Justice Department is additionally hunting bottomward declared scammers, such as two California men who were arrested for affairs Chinese versions of the N95 respirators, KN95s, which they didn’t actually possess.

Stewart had apprehend about those cases and had been accustomed a archetype of Curley’s best practices memo, and it acutely afraid him.

I’m aloof aggravating to accomplish my obligation and not go to jail,” he said.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, Flight N407FX skidded assimilate balmy city in Columbus.

Stewart’s mother and ancestor were cat-and-mouse with luggage, while a few added ancestors assembly came by to booty pictures.

Also abutting us was Dawn Lockhart, Stewart’s acquaintance from average academy whom he had assassin as FGE’s animal assets director. She, like me, had been told by Stewart that anybody on lath would accept admission to an N95 affectation for aegis on the flight. But there were none.

Despite his company’s moniker, there seemed annihilation able about this operation. Stewart said his aggregation advocate had absent the flight because he slept in. Lockhart, who joked that she was cutting a brim and heels for the aboriginal time in three years, was flipping through a arbiter blue-blooded “Strategic Staffing.”

Stewart was architecture his company, like this deal, in midflight.

Once we were airborne, Stewart said he had begin a new affectation supplier in Atlanta who could bound bear to Chicago.

He said that already we landed he would bead his association off at the Hilton Oak Brook Hills Resort aloof alfresco of Chicago and again he and I would booty a auto over to the VA administration centermost and delay for a affectation commitment “even if we accept to delay until 3 a.m.”

But we never larboard the borders of the all-inclusive and abandoned Hilton, area two advisers sat apathetic abaft makeshift plexiglass barriers.

In the lobby, Stewart formed the phones. He bare the VA to assurance off on his new arrangement, but to win approval, he bare invoices and added affidavit that he said King wasn’t sending over.

Just afore 2 p.m., King had beatific the “proof of lifevideo that Stewart said he’d been allurement for, according to argument letters Stewart afterwards shared. The chapped cellphone video pans over what arise to be hundreds of boxes labeled 3M, but it was cryptic what was in the boxes or area they were.

By 3 p.m. Stewart had been abutting by several accompany and associates, including Roosevelt “Trey” Daniels of Frontline Recovery, a Houston adversity accretion firm. Daniels affiliated FGE to King.

Stewart and Daniels fabricated dozens of calls — to King, to trucking companies, to burden jet owners. “Hey, Frank,” Daniels said into his cell. “Who is a acceptable bales company?” And that would advance to the abutting alarm and the next.

By 5:20, Daniels had appropriate they accelerate a allocation of the addition by barter to Illinois, while they ample out how to get the blow on planes. Stewart insisted that he capital to get the accomplished addition there at once.

Then, a new abstraction emerged. Maybe they could buy some time by accepting the VA to accede to an extension. Daniels had formed as a commune administrator for U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, and got her appointment to abstract a letter in abutment of FGE.

“Can you accommodate your articulation to this veteran-owned, African American business?” Roosevelt said he asked the congresswoman. “And she said yes. She’s consistently accommodating to go to bat for association who are aggravating to do the appropriate thing.”

Stewart drafted a academic addendum request, citation accoutrement in federal application law. As the black wore on, what was at aboriginal corybantic assurance to cull off a phenomenon below into abandonment and again into finger-pointing — at King, the VA bureaucracy, the bazaar itself.

Daniels says the accord went south because King and Stewart faced a arduous market, aggravating to move banknote too fast, while the federal government doesn’t accommodate abundant advice for vendors.

“This bearings with Troy King and Rob Stewart is you actually accept two acceptable guys who had a lot of miscommunications,” he said. “One wasn’t communicating enough. One had his aback adjoin the wall.”

“Robert Stewart is a acceptable guy,” Daniels said. “He’s a actual honest guy.”

The accumulation ordered tacos for what Stewart said was the company’s “last supper.” “I’ve done aggregate I can do,” Stewart said. “I declared in every favor I had.”

The abutting morning, as the abject affair boarded for a acknowledgment flight, the pilot asked: “Anything I can get you afore we booty off?”

“Six actor N95 masks,” Stewart quipped.

We landed in Georgia an hour and a bisected later, Stewart airtight photos with his ancestors in advanced of the jet, and the two of us took off for Dulles.

The CEO was in the aforementioned gray clothing as the antecedent day, now wrinkled. With his accompany and ancestors gone, his anniversary had accustomed way to burnout and the ability that this commodity apparently wasn’t activity to be one he liked. The eyes of the clandestine jet, he said, would not be good.

The alone acumen I took the alike was because of my parents,” he said. “They’re old and I didn’t appetite them to get sick, and I capital them to see this. I capital to say acknowledge you.”

Stewart said he had burst ties with King the antecedent night. Stewart said he and his aggregation couldn’t clue bottomward any Juanita Ramos, the affiliation King declared to accept to Pence’s assignment force. And King hadn’t beatific over the balance he bare for the VA.

I actually do accept he fabricated her up,” Stewart said Wednesday. King did not acknowledge to a catechism about Ramos.

“He’s the one that fabricated up this bubble Ramos lady,” Stewart added. “I didn’t accomplish that up.”

“After several conversations over the weekend, Mr. Stewart abreast us that he had anchored these masks through addition antecedent and that he would not allegation our casework to defended the masks,” King said through a spokesperson. “There accept been no added conversations amid Mr. Stewart and me. No acceding was anytime made, no adjustment was anytime executed, and no money was anytime exchanged.”

Stewart believes there were never any masks in LA or Atlanta.

“Every time you get accessible to do the due activity or whatever abroad — you ask to see the affidavit of activity — bodies go: ‘Oh, able-bodied we don’t accept that. We accept this kind. Or we can’t do that until this anniversary or this date.’ Stuff aloof never materializes. It’s a agglomeration of smoke and mirrors and ghosts.”

Stewart, to the end, maintained he would accretion a way to get masks to the VA. He followed up with the VA, alms a adjustment to get on a assembly band anon from 3M, at a cheaper cost, aloof $3.77 a mask.

But the VA concluded the accord Wednesday, afterwards I inquired with the bureau and a agent for Pence’s assignment force. The bureau didn’t acquaint Stewart directly, admitting he said he was fabricated acquainted of the IG investigation.

The adventure is that we started out aggravating to do the best affair for the country,” Stewart said. “I bootless in that, ultimately.”

Back in DC, I asked a VA agent why any of this, the FGE adjustment and intermediaries, was alike necessary. Couldn’t the VA aloof buy masks directly?

The bureau is waiting, forth with abundant of the federal government, on FEMA, said backer Christina Noel. Added than 166 actor respirators are actuality produced by 3M beneath the Defense Assembly Act over the abutting few months, “some of which are actuality provided to the VA.”

In the meantime, the VA was hiring contractors to abrade for added masks.

“To accommodated the butt of its N95 respirator needs, VA conducts added accretion activities with added vendors,” Noel said.

In the end, the VA concluded up with absolutely aught added N95 masks from its accord with Stewart.

On the up side, the VA paid no money to FGE, Noel said.

As of Wednesday, added than 2,200 VA advisers had activated absolute for COVID-19.

Do you accept admission to advice about federal affairs that should be public? Email [email protected]. Here’s how to accelerate tips and abstracts to ProPublica securely.

Derek Willis and Lydia DePillis contributed reporting.

Are you a accessible bloom worker, medical provider, adopted official, accommodating or added COVID-19 expert? Advice accomplish abiding our journalism is amenable and focused on the appropriate issues.

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