By DÁNICA COTO Associated Press
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s governor announced Thursday that she has ordered the cancellation of all contracts awarded to people and companies whose names have been publicized as part of a local and federal investigation into an attempted purchase of $38 million worth of COVID-19 testing kits.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez spoke at the same time a former official with the island’s Health Department declined an offer of immunity as she testified before a legislative committee investigating the attempt to buy the testing kits amid an urgent need for widespread testing.
Vázquez’s turnaround comes a week after she held a press conference defending the purchase order that has since been canceled, with the government recuperating its $19 million deposit.
Among the contracts Vázquez ordered canceled are those awarded to Juan Maldonado de Jesús, former director of Puerto Rico’s Maritime Transportation Authority and attorney of Apex General Constructors, which had pledged to deliver one million testing kits from a company in Australia before the contract was canceled.
“It’s unacceptable that he tried to take advantage of the government’s crisis,” the governor said.
Maldonado could not be immediately reached for comment.
Vázquez reiterated that said she was not aware of the intended purchase when asked how it was possible her office did not know about a contract of that size.
“I cannot go into the details of each [contract],” she said. “I have to trust in the heads of government agencies.”
The contract with Apex General Constructors was first reported by local newspaper El Nuevo Día.
Apex, a small Puerto Rico construction company, had said it would source the kits from Promedical, a manufacturing company in Australia. Promedical issued a statement to The Associated Press saying it had not been in conversation or entered into a contract with Apex, adding that it sells rapid test kits to approved distributors for less than half the value identified by Apex.
Vázquez also announced that a federal official not yet identified would work with Puerto Rico’s health secretary for free to ensure that the local government’s response to the coronavirus crisis remains transparent.
“We’re not going to allow actions that raise doubts,” she said.
While Vázquez spoke, a Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives committee held a hearing to hear testimony from Adil Rosa, former auxiliary secretary of the island’s Health Department. It’s still unclear who approved the purchase of $38 million worth of testing kits that was canceled.
Health Secretary Lorenzo González has said that federal agencies including the FBI also are investigating the canceled purchase.
Puerto Rico has reported at least 56 deaths and more than 1,000 confirmed cases, with more than 1,460 pending test results. The U.S. territory of 3.2 million people has the lowest per-capita testing rate compared with any U.S. state as scientists demand widespread testing for an accurate picture of COVID-19 cases on the island in the middle of a two-month lockdown.