Executive threw Hochul fundraiser weeks before landing $637M deal

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul claims when her government paid a vendor $637 million for COVID-19 testing last winter, she didn’t know the recipient was a campaign donor.

“I wasn’t aware that this was a company that had backed me,” Hochul told reporters at a July 20 news conference. “I’m not following this. My team, they have no idea.”

But a month before the Hochul government finalized the deals, the company’s founder held a personal fundraiser for Hochul, records show.

According to Hochul’s campaign disclosure forms, the November 22 fundraiser was hosted by Charlie Tebele, founder of Digital Gadgets LLC. A month later, the company would begin receiving $637 million in payments from the Hochul administration to facilitate the purchase of 52 million home-use rapid coronavirus tests.

The deal was made possible by Hochul’s revived suspension of competition rules on administration purchases of COVID-19 supplies — a policy change also introduced for a time by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Hochul issued an emergency order overriding these rules on November 26, four days after the Tebele fundraiser.

A Hochul spokeswoman did not directly address the governor’s July statement that she was unaware that Digital Gadgets had been linked to a campaign supporter.

Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokeswoman for Hochul, said the governor “did not oversee the procurement process and was not involved in day-to-day procurement decisions.”

“She simply directed her team to purchase as many available tests as possible to meet the tremendous need across the state, and they did just that to keep New Yorkers safe.” As we have always said, campaign contributions have no bearing on government decisions and we reject any other implication,” Crampton-Hays said.

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The Tebele family has donated nearly $300,000 to Hochul’s campaign, and Tebele held two fundraisers for her campaign: one a month before the orders were filled, and one on April 10, two weeks after the payments were completed.

In cases involving other campaign donors, emails show that Hochul spoke at fundraisers on state government matters, and her campaign staff helped put these donors in touch with senior officials in Hochul’s executive chamber.

Tebele’s lawyer told the Times Union in July: “Mr. Tebele has never spoken to the governor about[Health Department]matters — ever.”

According to Digital Gadgets, Tebele never spoke to the Hochul campaign about providing the COVID-19 tests. Digital Gadgets, which previously received government contracts, “became aware of the need for testing based on public media reports,” according to the company.

Digital Gadgets declined to say how the company had been in contact with the Hochul administration regarding the sale. Hochul’s campaign declined to answer questions about interactions between its employees or the governor with the company.

In selling the antigen tests to New York, Tebele’s company charged a far higher price per test than other vendors the state used last winter. California bought the same test that Tebele was selling at 45 percent less per unit.

Unlike California, which bought the AccessBio “Carestart” test directly from the manufacturer, the Hochul administration bought it through Digital Gadgets, a third-party vendor, which made an unspecified cut.

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