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As Sununu Divvies Up N.H.'s COVID Relief Money, Political Allies Sometimes Benefit

Casey McDermott / NHPR
A banner outside the Hillsborough County Nursing Home shows support for healthcare workers.

Gov. Chris Sununu has authorized spending millions on New Hampshire’s COVID-19 relief efforts in recent weeks, using powers he established through a state of emergency declaration two months ago. He’s done so without the oversight typically provided by lawmakers and the Executive Council.

Sununu says his COVID-19 spending decisions are driven solely by what’s best for New Hampshire.

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“Whether it’s PPE or testing, or what’s going on in long-term care facilities, I’m not sure how any of this is political at all,”Sununu said Friday. “We just kind of put our heads down, look at the data and do our job.”

But recently disclosed state contracts show that Sununu has authorized several no-bid, retroactive deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to political benefactors, without the traditional outside approval. Sununu included the contracts on the Executive Council’s agenda this week, but simply as “informational items,” and not requiring the standard up-or-down vote from the five-member council.

The new contracts are almost certain to heighten tension between Sununu, a two-term Republican, and Democratic leaders in Concord, who say the governor is failing to provide enough information about how he’s doling out more than $1 billion in federal aid.

One new beneficiary of that spending is Concord developer Steve Duprey, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman and longtime GOP activist and donor. Sununu has authorized the state to pay the Duprey-owned Capital Hotel Company $453,599 to supply four ballrooms and four converted guest rooms for “a COVID-19 Operations Center.”

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According to the contract explanation provided to the Council, the state Health Department needed to move its COVID-response headquarters “due to the high number of surge staffing needed for case investigation, contact tracing, monitoring and coordination of COVID-19 testing.” The contract also notes that office space for the state Division of Public Health “is undergoing significant renovation.”

The contract covers daily housekeeping services (billed at $2,500 per month), food at $10 per meal and coffee supplied at $40 per urn.

“A minimum of 75 meals per day is required,” the contract reads.

In an interview, Duprey said the state was getting a discount on what his properties would normally charge for those services. And he said he expects the contract to make up for less than a third of his venue’s anticipated revenue losses because of the coronavirus.

“I can tell you, I had no contact with anyone in the government about this,” Duprey said. “They came to our sales office and found us. I think they were looking for a place that was close to wherever they’re running the headquarters for the whole COVID thing, and had connectivity and utilities. I wasn’t involved at all.”

Duprey and Sununu have been political allies for years. Sununu endorsed Duprey’s unsuccessful bid for a fifth term as New Hampshire’s Republican National Committeeman earlier this year. Campaign finance records show Duprey has contributed at least $9,000 to Sununu’s recent election bids.

Also made public this week are two no-bid, retroactive contracts involving Portsmouth-based urgent care provider, Convenient MD. One contract, worth $450,000, pays Convenient MD to provide nurses and physicians assistants to boost the state’s contact tracing program.

Another contract awards Convenient MD $1 million in exchange for “telemedicine services,” backdated to March 25, and also to conduct COVID-19 testing on workers at the state’s long-term care facilities, starting on April 15. In recent weeks, Sununu has lavished praise on Convenient MD as a key element in the state’s coronavirus response efforts.

“Convenient MD has been a terrific partner,” Sununu said at a press conference earlier this month. “They’ve done a terrific job.”

Sununu’s ties to the company predate the pandemic. Convenient MD cofounder Max Puyanic hosted a political fundraiser for the governor at his Seacoast home late last year. Campaign finance records show that Puyanic, his wife Tamar Puyanic, and Convenient MD itself have contributed at least $11,500 to Sununu’s gubernatorial campaigns.

Convenient MD did not immediately return a call for comment. But Sununu has brushed off questions about whether his political ties are influencing how he is allocating the state’s relief money. And state health officials have said the company has delivered on what it’s been asked to do.

“Convenient MD has never told us no,” state Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said last month.

In a statement provided to NHPR Monday, Shibinette said Sununu "had absolutely no role or influence in selecting these contracts. It was entirely at the discretion of myself and my team.”

She also said Duprey's facility was the only nearby one with "the capacity and capability to handle the needs of this contact tracing team."

She also said the state sought assistance from other healthcare organizations to provide the services contracted for with Convenient MD but found no takers.

“Convenient MD was the first to reach out to the state offering their services,” Shibinette said. “We informed the Governor of this contract after we finalized all logistics. Other federally qualified health centers have since stepped up to offer their services, and we have since entered into contracts with them too.”

Convenient MD has also benefited from a $1.6 million grant from an emergency healthcare relief fund Sununu created in March. That’s among the largest amounts given out of that fund to date, and the largest single amount to any state healthcare organization other than Exeter Hospital ($1.65 million)  and LRGH Healthcare ($5.25 million).


Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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