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Senators call for independent probe of ‘Project Air Bridge’ and role of Medline, other companies

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal and Charles Schumer are asking the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee about COVID-19 supply distribution. Medline is headquarted in Northfield.

Medline CEO Charles Mills at a meeting in March at the White House.
Medline CEO Charles Mills at a meeting in March at the White House.
AFP/Getty Images file photo

Three Senate Democrats are turning up the investigative heat on the Trump administration’s Project Air Bridge, which flew in — at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — high demand medical gloves, gowns and masks plus other supplies distributed by six for-profit companies, including the Northfield-based Medline Industries.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal and Charles Schumer asked the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to conduct an independent investigation in a Monday letter.

The senators said in their letter, “Project Air Bridge—like the broader Trump Administration response to the pandemic—has been marked by delays, incompetence, confusion, and secrecy involving multiple Federal agencies and actors.” They are trying to determine “the precise role” played by President Donald Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner in Project Air Bridge.

An issue for the senators is finding out why Kushner went to his connections in the business world to create Project Air Bridge rather “than using procurement and logistics experts” within the federal government.

Taxpayers paid at least $91 million for the flights, and no one knows if the goods were in fact delivered to the areas with the most need.

In April, Warren, from Massachusetts, and Blumenthal, of Connecticut, launched their own inquiry into Project Air Bridge, asking for information from Medline and five other medical supply companies receiving the air shipments: Cardinal Health, Inc.; Concordance Healthcare Solutions, LLC; Henry Schein, Inc.; McKesson Corp.; and Owens & Minor, Inc. Schumer, from New York, the top Senate Democrat, joined his colleagues in pushing for an investigation.

The senators sent the companies a list of detailed questions and on Tuesday released the replies to the public.

The response of Medline — a large, privately held health care manufacturer and distributor — to the Warren and Blumenthal inquiry was narrow, legalistic and devoid of most of the requested details.

Medline’s general counsel, Alex Liberman, in reply to the question “How was your company selected as a participant in Project Air Bridge?,” told the senators in a letter, “Medline has no knowledge of the government process that led to our selection for participation in Project Air Bridge.”

No knowledge?

Liberman signed a Memo of Understanding for the Air Bridge deal with the federal government on March 28, according to the document released by the senators.

On March 29, Medline CEO Charlie Mills was at the White House with Trump for a widely reported and photographed meeting of coronavirus supply chain distributors. On March 30, the MOU with Medline was finalized, countersigned by an official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Medline on Tuesday offered more information on its own website than it volunteered to the senators: “We activated our emergency operations response in February and have been actively coordinating with government agencies,” the company said.

A Medline spokesman declined to comment.

There was a desperate need for PPE – personal protection equipment – starting in March, as the scope of the pandemic was becoming known. Most supplies came from China; shipping by sea could take a month.

The Chicago Sun-Times was told by FEMA the average cost per flight was about “$750,000-$800,000 depending on the carriers and cargo being air lifted.” FEMA told the Sun-Times the agency “covered the cost to fly supplies into the U.S. from overseas factories, cutting the amount of time it takes to ship supplies from weeks to days.”

In return for the free, expedited air shipments, Medline and the other companies were required to sell 50% of the supplies to clients in “hot spots,” with the firms allowed to sell the rest to their other customers, no matter the location.

The MOUs did not require any disclosure about where the goods were distributed, and Medline did not volunteer any details.