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Contractors Armed with Lobbyists Raked in COVID Cash

Public Citizen News

By David Rosen

Just 6% of the companies that received federal contracts to provide products and services to address the pandemic lobbied the federal government in 2020, but these companies received more than half of the money.

That’s the finding of a report co-authored by Public Citizen and the Center for Responsive Politics.

“The striking share of COVID dollars that went to contractors who engaged in federal lobbying raises questions about whether the work of professional influencers figured into procurement decisions,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen. “These findings point to the need for greater oversight to ensure that contracts were issued on the basis of merit, not connections.”

The correlation between lobbying and contracts was even greater for those that lobbied either the Trump administration or their awarding agency on COVID-related issues. Only 2% of contract recipients fell into this group. They received 37% of the money, $13.4 billion. Together, these companies dispatched more than 3,500 lobbyists to Capitol Hill, federal agencies, and the White House in 2020, the report found.

“Findings like these raise larger questions – not only about whether money had undue influence on government contracts during a national crisis, but also whether this happens under normal circumstances,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics – the leading research group tracking money in U.S. politics. “To what degree do the billions spent annually on lobbying skew policies and decisions away from the greater good on a systemic level? This study is a good place to start examining that question.”

The PACs and employees of companies that lobbied their awarding agency or the White House on COVID issues gave $313 million in campaign contributions to former President Donald Trump, members of Congress, and party committees from the 2016 to 2020 election cycles.

Recipients of nearly $400 million in ventilator contracts and more than $50 million in COVID testing contracts lobbied the government for the first time ever in 2020.

“Quelling the rampaging coronavirus demands the best resources our country has to offer. But when it came to selling goods and services to the federal government to address the crisis in 2020, vendors were far more likely to be chosen if they supplemented their offers of assistance with visits from their lobbyists,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director for Public Citizen and co-author of the report.

Among COVID contract recipients, a Silicon Valley data firm whose founder and chairman served on Trump’s 2016 transition team received more than $40 million. The founder also was a business partner of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who reportedly ran a shadow COVID task force.

A North Carolina textiles company that had previously received just one very small government contract received nearly $600 million in contracts for protective wear and other supplies. The company hosted Vice President Mike Pence a year earlier for a speech, and its CEO is a major Republican donor.

A vendor that received $50 million in contracts from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was represented by a former chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs committee who also served as an informal spokesman for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Why did so many companies feel the need to engage lobbyists to secure contracts to sell these goods and services? Did the government award contracts based on merit or based on connections? And were contractors with potentially valuable products and services able to receive a fair hearing if they did not back up their pitches with lobbyists’ visits?” asked Mike Tanglis, research director for Public Citizen and co-author of the report.

“The public deserves the maximum amount of information possible to be reassured that the money is being spent wisely, and that recipients of COVID contracts are chosen fairly.”