Grit Nation

Pandemic Inc: Chasing the Thieves and Capitalist Who Got Rich While We Got Sick - David McSwane

May 24, 2022 David McSwane Episode 32
Grit Nation
Pandemic Inc: Chasing the Thieves and Capitalist Who Got Rich While We Got Sick - David McSwane
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Welcome to another episode of Grit Nation, I’m Joe Cadwell the host of the show and today I will be talking with investigative reporter David McSwane about his new book Pandemic Inc. – Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick. 

David’s book is an explosive look inside the rush to profit from the Covid-19 pandemic and connects the dots between shady backdoor deals and a robust spoils systems that led to a catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic. 

Pandemic Inc is a brilliant nonfiction thriller that takes us behind the scenes to reveal how traders, contractors and healthcare companies used one of the darkest moments in American history to fill their pockets. 

During our conversation David will introduce us to a host of characters he met while writing his story. From the fraudster who signed a million-dollar contract with the government to provide lifesaving PPE and yet came up with not a single mask to the Navy admiral at the helm of the national hunt for medical supplies.  

David’s roller coaster of a story takes us inside private jets and dirty warehouses as he seeks to expose the stranger than fiction criminal enterprise that played out in real time right before our very eyes. 

The Show Notes

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David McSwane:

Just millions of dollars were being sent to fake farms, people who had just created a non entity and lenders because of the way the paycheck Protection Program was created, had no incentive to dig into this any further. They just issued the payments. And it's an it's an open mystery with law enforcement, prosecutors are going to be chasing down hundreds of, if not 1000s of leads of people who defrauded that program because it was so loosely regulated.

Joe Cadwell:

Welcome to another episode of Grit Nation. I'm Joe Cadwell, the host of the show, and today I'll be talking with investigative reporter David McSwane about his new book Pandemic Inc -Chasing the Capitalist and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick. David's book is an explosive look inside the rush to profit from the COVID - 19 pandemic connects the dots between shady backdoor deals and a robust spoil system that led to a catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic. Pandemic Inc is a brilliant nonfiction thriller that takes us behind the scenes to reveal how traders contractors and healthcare companies used one of the darkest moments in American history to fill their pockets. During our conversation, David will introduce us to a host of characters he met while writing his book from the fraudster who signed a million dollar contract with the government to provide life saving PPE and yet came up with not even a single mask to the Navy admiral at the helm of the national hunt for medical supplies. David's rollercoaster of a story takes us inside private jets and dirty warehouses as he seeks to expose the Stranger Than Fiction criminal enterprise that played out in real time right before our very eyes. Learn more about David and his work, be sure to check out the show notes or visit the grit nation website at gritnationpodcast.com. And now on to the show. David McSwane welcome to Grit Nation.

David McSwane:

Thanks for having me.

Joe Cadwell:

Yeah, thank you so much, David, for taking your time to be on my show today. I'm really excited to talk with you and introduce you and the the book that you've just written pandemic Inc, to my listeners. And, David, you've got a you know, just a ton of awards behind you. As an investigative journalist, you've seen a lot, you've written a lot, what inspired you to get into kind of talking about something that we all collectively have lived through the last two years? Why did you write Pandemic Inc?

David McSwane:

Well, I didn't actually set out to write a book. I like every reporter in the world as COVID hit was trying to find my place in the coverage, you know, it's hopefully the largest story of, of our careers and I was new here in Washington, DC, New to pro publica, it's a new office we've built out here. And you know, I was looking early on at, you know, following some of the data that tracks deaths, and I've worked on some of that stuff. And as soon as the Trump administration decided to try to catch up to the virus, its solution appeared to be to throw, you know, hundreds and millions and eventually billions of dollars, at contractors for things like masks and gloves. And right away, I knew that this is something that people could take advantage of. So I just started following the money looking at who was being paid, digging into their backgrounds following up and before you know it, you know, I found quite a few interesting stories, which i i ended up detailing in the book. But as a result of that series of reporting, that's when the interest for for a book came to be, you know, over the summer of 2020.

Joe Cadwell:

And having read your book and being thoroughly enlightened and entertained by it, because it really was a fun read. You had a whole host of characters that you kind of were introduced to and I think, you know, starting off you started off on a jet plane that was was heading out on this sort of Hail Mary mission to acquire 6.5 million masks for the Veterans Administration. And how did you get on that jet? Let's start there.

David McSwane:

Yeah, so like I said, I just started digging into the contractors that were being hired by the federal government. i My eyes were drawn to the Veterans Administration because they oversee the largest hospital network in the US and doctors and nurses were fashioning their own protective equipment. And you know, we were just hearing horror stories. So it's clear that they needed supplies and just looking at the contracts it looked like they were panic buying, and they you know, their biggest contractor at the time, a guy named Robert Stewart Jr. had a little company called federal government and experts. And he had a 34 and a half million dollar deal for 6 million at the end 95 respirators. And he had no background in medical supplies. It was his first ever federal government contract. So, you know, his website had had large passages plagiarized. And they were just sort of alarm bells. So I just decided to call him and ask how he got these masks. And, you know, and he's Adam. And we realized to me that I, you know, I'm the real deal. I'm hopping on a private jet in the morning, I'm going to oversee the delivery of these masks, it's going to be, it's going to be amazing. And I said, that is amazing. Would you mind if I tag along and a few hours later, I'm aboard a private jet to Chicago, by way of Columbus, Georgia, to pick up his parents for some reason. And over the course of about 36 hours, just realized his story was falling apart. He said he had masks and they were gone, somebody bought them. But he introduced me to this weird underworld of mask brokers and investors and people who are all trying to get, you know, a little piece of the action get rich, you know, behind these government contracts and our desperation and that sent me off on about a year and a half of reporting just ending up in a really absurd situation such as that.

Joe Cadwell:

Right. And and so going back to Robert Stewart, do you think he was nefarious? Do you think he went out with the intent of defrauding the the Veterans Administration? Or is this something you just sort of stumbled into wanting to be an entrepreneur sort of wanted to be? I seem to remember in your book, he wanted to be a good patriot. He was very defensive about about not being perceived as what he called a pirate or a Buccaneer or even a mercenary, you know, and being a parasite on the system. But in the end, it's sort of he sort of ended up that way, didn't he?

David McSwane:

Yeah, I mean, that was my question from the outset was, you know, is this guy being, you know, is he maliciously trying to get rich off of our desperate moment? Or is he just over his skis? You know, did he just take this a little bit too far? And that really becomes a central tension in the book. It seemed to me that he was struggling with that question of, you know, is he the vaunted American entrepreneur that we really idealize in this country, you know, rising to his occasion? Or was he in fact, a Buccaneer, you know, slash pirate that he's so decried? And, you know, in the end, he is charged with three federal crimes, and we find out that, you know, he had committed a federal crime before my eyes.

Joe Cadwell:

Right, and, and, you know, but this fella here, didn't quite have a track record. And later on, I hope, we'll get into the Fila kit and the Paul Wexler, who seemed to have, you know, a history of getting himself into some dubious sort of endeavors. But, you know, I was really taken by this, this Robert Stewart's case that you open your book with that it just seemed like it was someone that had an idealistic vision, and maybe got, like you said, over his skis a little bit, and before too long, he found himself in deep water. And, and, you know, he's on a private jet to go to Chicago where I think it was in route, he opened up to you and said, he didn't even have access to the mask. And you think you replied, like, Well, why are we going to Chicago?

David McSwane:

Yeah, yeah. And his response was, Well, it's if it's a faith thing, and he held up his Devotional Bible, and, you know, I received proper Christian education. So I understood where he was headed with this, but it seemed like an awful lot to hinge on faith. And, you know, I really wondered, you know, is this guy just making it up as he goes along? Is this a performance for me? Because he knows I'm writing a story. And, you know, those are sort of open questions, and I try to keep an open mind and just see where characters take me. And, you know, he kept saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And he kept referencing, well, people are going to prison. And the more he talked about this, the more I began to wonder, you know, am I his confessor? You know, does he feel guilty about something he's doing? And is this his way of coping with that? And, you know, towards the end of the book, I describe, you know, a scene where he kind of has to face the music. And, you know, we didn't know where it where it was headed in April 2020. But, you know, now, now, we've had a chance to catch up to this and people are having to, you know, pay the consequences for their actions.

Joe Cadwell:

For sure. So, let's talk now a little bit about the national stockpile and why we found ourselves at sort of the mercy of these entrepreneurs, if you will, like Robert Stewart and Paul Wexler and, and how as a nation, did we find ourselves in this position, do you think David?

David McSwane:

Yeah, we had this sort of perfect storm of being woefully ill prepared, just institutionally and And then you add to that the Trump administration, which was really reluctant to acknowledge the pandemic in those early weeks, by the time COVID hit, we had something like 1% of what we needed in terms of masks and gloves and gowns and so forth in the strategic national stockpile, which is supposed to be deployed, you know, to handle crises across the country very rapidly.

Joe Cadwell:

crises like Hurricane Katrina or hurricane sandy or something of that nature, but which are geographically specific in the US, but this was all 50 states were being affected at the same time.

David McSwane:

Right? Yes. You know, this network of warehouses is designed to respond locally, so you're not waiting for things to come out of Washington. So it was originally envisioned to respond to bioterrorism attacks. And slowly it was actually the George W. Bush administration that first really realized and put money behind, you know, the threat of an influenza pandemic. But because of just political bickering, and the rise of the Tea Party and their fight against anything the Obama administration had to do, they forced cuts, really across the federal government and Democrats were forced to sort of, you know, spread the pain and figure out where to make cuts. And the Strategic National Stockpile was a victim of that. So we, you know, just sort of our politics and not taking warning seriously, we had very clear evidence that this was a problem that a pandemic was inevitable that we're going to need these masks that states are going to be competing with each other. We really just didn't heed those warnings. So we found ourselves ill prepared.

Joe Cadwell:

It seems like again at 1%, woefully underprepared. Did our does our national stockpile, or do you know, David, does that rely on American American manufacturing of these products? The the masking that or is it a supply chain issue where we're being shut down overseas? And that's why we couldn't replenish our supplies quickly, quickly enough.

David McSwane:

Yeah, so there's a lot in the strategic national stockpile, about half of its budget over the years had been sunk in to anthrax treatments, which haven't actually been deployed. So that put a strain on the stockpile itself. But at the same time, mass manufacturing had been shipped out to places like China, and even Mexico for cheaper labor and production costs. And, you know, in fact, I detail in the book, a guy named Mike Bowen, who runs an American, you know, USA made mass factory down near Dallas, Texas, he'd been warning for 13 years. If we're hit with a pandemic, we're going to be reliant on China, they're going to choke off supply, and Americans are needlessly going to die. He'd been trying to get the stockpile to really invest in domestic manufacturing. And we did it.

Joe Cadwell:

I thought that was a really interesting part of the book, too, that Mike Bowen had the vision for so long and worked so hard, and actually had factories that if they, what is it called the National Defense Act? Is it that the President Trump could have used at that time to reboot some of these factories? could have got that up and up and running? Yeah, the defense production act? Yeah, the defense production act. And there is Mike Bowen, and he's meeting with, I think, in your book, you said, Peter Navarro. And they said, it looked like there was a little bit of a clash of personalities, and Peter Navarro, who was another one of these very interesting characters that hopefully you could elaborate on a little bit. And his play in the, in all of this sort of had some misgivings about Mike Bone and was not able to reboot this American production of essential equipment for our, our hospitals and, and citizens.

David McSwane:

Yeah, Mike Bone and his company prestige Ameritech had, you know, they rose to the occasion during h1 and one, the swine flu epidemic in 2009 2010. But when the when the virus, so too, did the business, so his company had hired something like 150 employees and fired up all these machines. And then when that business went away, they had to fire all those people, and shut down the machines that nearly put them into bankruptcy. So he was trying to say to the federal government, I have these machines that can make n95 We can have domestically made masks, I can get you millions and millions of masks. But I need to know that we have a deal that makes business sense. We this needs to be an investment. I don't want to hire and fire people and end up in bankruptcy. And at the same time, Peter Navarro who is you know, kind of a brusque guy. He's a real character. Everyone in Washington has an opinion about him. He wanted the brass tacks. He wanted to know how many masks for set price and he just didn't want to deal with that. So they were kind of talking past each other. So at the same time, the deal with Boeing falls apart. Peter Navarro. It really does something remarkable. He inserts himself in the federal purchase. thing, which is pretty historically significant. So you have the White House, ordering contracts, picking winners and losers, of which prestige Ameritech really wasn't one. And our national response effectively becomes to just throw money at mercenaries, people who claim they have things now on the ground and can deliver them, many of whom are scammers and fraudsters and liars.

Joe Cadwell:

And Peter Navarro, for those who don't know, at the time was the economic adviser on the Trump administration, and sort of again, was one of those personalities that really wanted to see things done quickly and cut through a lot of the bureaucracy in order to try to make that happen. And, and I know, a lot of people have strong feelings about Peter Navarro one way or the other. But it does seem like that fell at that time point in time in history was, was really trying to make something happened. But unfortunately, some of his efforts were not well received.

David McSwane:

Yeah. And I began to see him. I mean, he's a fascinating person, just as a writer, you know, looking at the characters, but he, he sort of got in his own way. You know, he was one of the first in the Trump administration to acknowledge that the threat and was trying to do things, but his willingness to break rules and convention and push for things like hydroxychloroquine when the science isn't there to back that up, really undermined his message, and that is the larger Trump administration in general. So he, he nearly became something about the hero in the story, but he does kind of get in his own way. And, you know, that's why I wanted to include him. He's a bit of a nuanced character.

Joe Cadwell:

Right. And speaking of other characters, I mean, you know, it starts off at the top with former President Donald Trump and his son in law, Jared Kushner, and I, again, referring back to your book, some of the folks that he brought in from private industry to try to help out with the initial efforts didn't go over so well. And I think one of the players in your in your book called them the Kushner kids, can you tell us a little bit more about Jared Kushner is involvement and the Kushner kids?

David McSwane:

Right, yeah, I spent some time talking with former Navy Rear Admiral John placzek, who he's essentially the adult in the room, he's called in a little bit too late to figure out the supply chain, because he was an expert on supply chains. And, you know, he starts he tells the White House now this is this isn't right, we got to do this at a FEMA. We can't be doing this from our cell phones at the White House. And you know, he's pretty instantly struck by Kushner his plan to build this shadow taskforce of people he knows from his business networks, well to do people from places like google or Go Goldman Sachs or whatever, and plopped it comes into FEMA and realizes there's a bunch of young civilians running around who are somehow in the middle of the pandemic response. And he's confused by that. And he tries to sideline them, essentially, to reviewing the just countless offers that are coming in from these mercenaries, these contractors who want a piece of the action. And, you know, for his part, he says, it really just created a public relations distraction. You know, the, the perception that Kushner was in charge of where supplies were going really overshadowed a lot of the work he was trying to do. But at the same time, there are clear examples where the Kushner kids, you know, gotten away, for instance, they based on a tweet at President Donald Trump from a man who claimed to have ventilators. They referred him to the state of New York, the state of New York assumed, well, oh, FEMA must have vetted this guy, let's give him a contract. And long story short, that contractor got, I think it was a $90 million deal collected about two thirds of that and never delivered ventilators. So now, you know, they're having to sue to recoup that money. So it really just added stress to the system at a really critical time.

Joe Cadwell:

And not only that, it wasted a lot of time. I mean, again, life saving equipment was being needed all across the country. And you know, people are being sent down these rabbit holes and wild goose chases, and it doesn't seem like they added had much value add to the to the situation again, trying to get back money. So you said 90 million there. I know that Robert Stewart, who we talked about with the n95 mask was given a contract a 34 and a half million dollars that these people actually receive all of this money. And if so, what what happened to that money?

David McSwane:

Some did, some didn't. So in the case of Robert Stewart, Jr, the private jet guy that I spent time with, he didn't receive the money because the federal government typically only pays upon acceptance of a product. It's rare to put the money down first. And this data in the case of the New York ventilator is shoe that person was actually paid upfront because states and cities were desperate, and they weren't getting help from the federal government. So they were willing in this is extraordinary to pay up front and sort of deal with the consequences later. So it's a bit of a mixed bag, the federal government's defensive that is, well, you know, we didn't we didn't pay out unless something was delivered. So no harm no foul, but that's not really that's not an honest answer, really, because what they did was they signal to this emerging black market, we're willing to pay Robert Stewart Jr. Nearly $6, a mask for a mask that used to cost $1. And that had these mercenaries, these Buccaneers and pirates flocking around this contract. And you have people trying to, you know, these broker chains that emerge, I know a guy who knows a guy, and everyone's trying to get a piece, they're negotiating their own deal, and that's driving up prices. And that makes it worse for states and cities and hospitals, who are all competing against one another for the same supplies. So it's it wasn't a harmless thing to do. And it really created a lot of chaos. You mentioned and we'll probably get into this in a bit. The company fill a kid which was contracted for test tubes. That's an example of a company that was paid because the federal government did accept the product, even though it was useless.

Joe Cadwell:

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David McSwane:

Yeah, so Philip kit was a company that formed in late April, early May, and six days later got a $10 million deal with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for for COVID 19 test kits. And these are the PCR tests, they require a little bit of science. And we looked into the company, the company had no background in medical supply whatsoever. So we questioned that they that they could, you know, provide these test kits, which were new, you know, this was novel stuff, and dug into the ownership and found that the owner Paul website had a history of fraud allegations, including, you know, telemarketing and robo call scams alleged by the Federal Trade Commission, which was sued and sued him. So we had reason to be suspicious. And we threw it into a larger story just about something like a billion dollars had gone to first time contractors in the first two months of the pandemic. And we call this priming the pump and investigative reporting. You don't always have all the answers. But if you can put a little bit out there, maybe someone will answer for you. And we did that. And I get a call from a state public health official that says, hey, I read your story. I have these test tubes. They were sent to me and I'm mind blown. I don't know what they are. They're completely unusable. They're too big for lab laboratory equipment. They're not sterile. There's thrown in a bag, you know, these are supposed to be hermetically sealed bags. Right? Yeah, exactly. So he's dumbfounded. He shares with a colleague, these test tubes and his colleague recognizes right away there, there are actually many soda bottle pre forms which are blown up with heat and pressure to become your two liter soda bottles at the grocery store. So we find this out I happened to be in Texas, chasing down an unrelated scam and we realized their warehouse is outside of Houston. So you know, I decided to go over, they wouldn't let me through the front door, you know, got mad at me. So I kind of pulled around the corner and just stick the place out and an Enterprise rental truck comes up. I realized that something's about to happen that large garage door opens up and and I walk up with my cell phone camera on accidentally shut it upside down taking notes. And I can see they have employees using literal snow shovels to gather up the soda bottles from large bins that put them into smaller bins. And you had workers just squirting saline and screwing them on and throwing them in another bin. Some of them are wearing masks, some aren't. There's giant industrial fans whipping around. So these are likely completely unsanitary and really problematic. And, you know, they've, you know, the owner got really mad at me and screamed at me, but I had everything I needed and when I reported that back to FEMA FEMA confirm that they had delivered those test tubes to all 50 states and territories. And these were the crucial, crucial weeks when we needed to catch up on testing so that we could be proactive against the virus. FEMA had to tell all 50 states and territories not to use those test kits. So it really cost us time when time American lines.

Joe Cadwell:

And that was $10 million that FEMA doled out and let's back up just a bit, David, you said you did some investigative digging to find out that this fella had, you know, kind of a track record of some nefarious deeds? How much digging did you have to do to find that and why didn't FEMA dig where you dug?

David McSwane:

Very little, you know, it didn't take the vast resources of the federal government to find these things. A quick Google search showed us a few things we've dug into court records, you know, we do a basic scrub, we call it on every business that we look into. And you know, right away just looking at the Secretary of State filings, which every company has to file in their home state, we could see that they formed on one day, and then six days later, they had a $10 million deal that indicates to me this company was formed specifically to get federal money as part of the COVID response. And as I said, because FEMA accepted those test kits, contract officers, we talked to our contract experts, I should say, said it's really hard to make the case that the company has to pay it back. Because the federal government paid for something they said, Okay, this is fine. So that company got away.

Joe Cadwell:

Incredible. So So again, just to recap that the beginning of the week, I plopped down 100 bucks, I open up an LLC, I get a business license, I send out an email or two. And by the end of the week, I'm looking at a $10 million contract from from FEMA.

David McSwane:

That about right, amazing return on investment. Right? No

Joe Cadwell:

kidding. And again, where was the vetting? Why did I understand the concept? We're in a we're in a panic mode. And, you know, but there needs to be some level of accountability. And it doesn't seem like there was any federal oversight to any of this.

David McSwane:

No, I mean, it was always going to be messy, right, because this is emergency spending time. But the these contract officers who were used to buying paper clips and chairs and things like that are suddenly arbiters of life saving equipment, they're on a front line of their own. And they're under tremendous pressure to find these things, because we don't have them because we didn't prepare. So I have some empathy for the for those folks. But at the same time, it didn't take much to figure out that these these are probably characters we shouldn't be going into business with in our time of need.

Joe Cadwell:

Right? Absolutely not. And yeah, it still just blows me away. And again, and money aside, it's people's lives, and reputations. I mean, we've taken some, some organizations like FEMA, everyone would respect FEMA. Before this would happen. I'm sure their their reputation has been tarnished a little bit. The CDC, obviously, he's been beaten up a little bit as well. And this whole process just created this chaotic system when the Fed sort of backed away. And I think there was a quote in your book, say that Jared Kushner, again, going back to Jared said, you know, this is our stockpile. This is the federal stockpile, we're gonna hold on to this and mask and lifesaving equipment is somewhat of a political football, didn't it?

David McSwane:

Yeah. What he said was just not true that the entire conceit of the stockpile was that the federal government could back up states it was meant to be deployed regionally. So his notion that it's our stockpile, made it inherently political, and that just worsened everything. And that sped up, you know, you saw states like California get, you know, Gavin Newsom, Governor, they're cutting deals with China directly, you know, and you get a lot of flack for time, but like looking back, and like that wasn't the worst idea. The federal government was getting in the way you know, it was it became winner take all

Joe Cadwell:

and it really wasn't you had a chapter in there, it seems like he turned into an eBay effect where states were bidding against states and this is fairly recent history. I remember this myself and going incredible, you know that the sort of price war bidding war for life saving equipment is playing out in real time and people are dying, proof of life. I'd like to talk to you about that. I read that I heard it I listen to you on another podcast or to proof of life came up a number of times what is what is the term proof of life when it comes to life saving equipment and unprecedented times? David?

David McSwane:

Yeah, so I first heard about this on that private jet with Robert Stewart Jr. and he said, You know, I'm about to get a proof of life and I do saw instantly of a hostage movie or something. But what these were his grainy cell phone videos sort of panning over what you call a lot of masks a bunch of boxes on a pallet. With the box is usually said 3am, or something, occasionally, someone would hold up a newspaper to prove that, you know, this was a recent video or a document with someone's name on it to prove that, you know, this is for this particular buyer. And these would be sent through this network of brokers and this sort of daisy chain. And the idea was, well, if you sound if you send proof of life, these videos and a proof of funds, such as a federal contract or bank statement, you know, we can do business. And this is all done on WhatsApp, you know, encrypted apps. And there were some people who were wiring money based on very little else. And because this market had just been inflamed this Bonanza because of the federal government's, you know, mentality of just throwing money out wherever these became like central park lands for deals that the federal government had cut. So these are this shenanigans behind every major contract to get us life saving supplies for our doctors and nurses and everybody else.

Joe Cadwell:

And ultimately, do you think you know, we've, you've highlighted in your book, again, pandemic ink chasing the capitalist and thieves who got rich while we got sick? You know, you've you've, I don't want to say cherry pick, but you've got some pretty ripe and extreme examples of people that have done bad things at the expense of the American taxpayers, health and well being. But do you think that was the norm? Or do you think that there were a lot of positive sides to the response either on the city state or even federal level that we can shine a positive light on? Or do you think it was a big mess?

David McSwane:

It was a big mess. But certainly in every story, there are your heroes and the nurses and doctors really rose to the occasion. The city of New York, I detail in there, while they you know, they gave some contracts out that they probably regret. They really did mobilize to try to help, you know, backup hospitals during those really terrifying months when we're, you know, we're just seeing bodies everywhere. And then there were people who rose to the occasion and did the right thing. I did end up gathering sources who were brokers who, you know, they shared with me the prices, they were charging, you know, they said I'm really not trying to price gouge my margins pretty small. I detail Mike Bowen and you know, his company prestige Ameritech they were trying to sell masks for less than $1 apiece, you know, that would have been a good deal for the American people. So there's a lot of that I mean, but ultimately, this is the story of a lot of what you didn't see, you know, the bad guys to the pandemic and people who saw an opportunity in the chaos and took the federal government states for a ride and taxpayers got screwed.

Joe Cadwell:

Exactly. Juanita Ramos was kind of an interesting character in your book. And she was described as well, yeah, I'll let you tell us about why do you

David McSwane:

so I need to Ramos was a mystery that dogged me for quite a while. So while I'm on this private jet, and Robert Stewart Jr. is telling me that he doesn't have the masks. He's up against a deadline. He's got to deliver the masks by the morning. He says, Well, I think we'll be able to get an extension they're going to understand because we have a connection on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. This is the task force run by Vice President Mike Pence time. And her name is Juanita Ramos, who's one either. And he's referencing her in letters that he's sending to Congress to, you know, to the VA. And turns out he doesn't really know who she is. She was on a phone call with her once but she's connected to these brokers that he's working with. And I'm thinking, Wait a minute, if there's a connection to the White House, that's a major story, you know, and and if they're pulling strings, and I'd contacted the White House and the VA and FEMA and no one knew who the hell Juanita Ramos was. So I had to report sort of that first story. Just saying I don't know who she is. I searched lobbying records, campaign finance, I mean, I looked all over and became like something of a meme on Twitter, you know, who was wanting to Ramos where in the world is when either rounds. Months go by? And finally, a reader stumbles upon one of my earlier stories and says, you know, I met a woman, Anita Ramos, and well let me back up. So somewhere in there while I'm trying to figure out who Juanita Ramos is after the story comes out a friend of mine who's not a journalist. He works at REI. He sends me a text message says Juanita Ramos is either a stripper in Atlanta, or a Native American Medicine Woman.

Joe Cadwell:

Yeah, that was said, Man, I should have listened to my friend earlier. Okay, so

David McSwane:

yeah, and I just thought, oh my friends and so so months, months later, random reader reaches out says, Hey, I talked to Juanita Ramos. Here's her phone number I cross reference the phone number. And sure enough, it leads me to this black and white photo of a Native American medicine woman. I couldn't believe it. I don't know how he found her. But you know, I ended up calling her and say, Hey, I've been looking for you. And she's like, What? Do you have a connection to the mike pence Coronavirus Taskforce. She says Mike Pence, I don't even like Mike Pence. I'm in. I'm down for the farmer man, I work in medical marijuana. So anyway, I ended up having to meet with her. And you know, she's saved all these records, she had somehow been pulled into these broker chains. And she was pretty small time. You know, she had some background in the marijuana business, which a lot of people in marijuana, because they're used to dealing outside of banks, and sort of in this gray area of the law ended up becoming mask brokers. But she was pretty small time. And somehow she got pulled into this whole thing. And it became a really, you know, sort of fun chapter to explain how I wasted time looking for wanting to run

Joe Cadwell:

the toils of an investigative journalist, I just thought that was kind of an interesting one and how they ever got connected to the pence. Task Force was an interesting one. There were a lot of other interesting things, citrus farms in Michigan and dairy farms in Florida. And in the, in your work as an investigative journalist, you comb through a lot of data, and you look for those sort of red flags, don't you?

David McSwane:

I do. Yeah, that you're referring to the paycheck protection program. Yeah, there's actually some colleagues of mine and ProPublica, who realized that just millions of dollars were being sent to fake farms, people who had just, you know, created a non entity, my favorite of which was called McDonald's, not burgers, but flowers. And, and lenders, because of the way the paycheck Protection Program was sort of created, had no incentive to dig into this any further, they just issued the payments. And it's an it's an open mystery where the law enforcement prosecutors are going to be chasing down hundreds of, you know, if not 1000s of leads of people who defrauded that program, because it was so loosely regulated,

Joe Cadwell:

incredible, incredible. One of my favorite quotes, and I'm not from your book, and I can't remember if it came from Game of Thrones, but Chaos is a ladder. And, you know, this this unprecedented time this this global pandemic that was, you know, affecting everyone really created a lot of opportunity for people to either strive for their best potential or reach for their lowest and, and you did an amazing job highlighting some of the people that found the ladder. So David, Deb, if someone when someone's reading your book, or after someone's reading your book, what do you hope they take away from, from pandemic ink?

David McSwane:

Yeah, well, first I, you know, the, the book includes a lot of humor, you know, it's not all despair. Humanity is a lot of things. And we just, we all endure to trauma. So I've tried to highlight some of the more bizarre things that I came across. But at the end of the day, this book is really a blueprint of exactly what we should do. When faced with such such a crisis, we really leaned into some of our worst instincts, and then include some of our toxic politics and, and greed and all of those things. And, ideally, you know, we'll be better prepared. The next time we'll have the national stockpile beefed up. We hopefully will have an administration that's ready to respond quickly so that we don't find ourselves completely reliant on random companies forming out of nowhere.

Joe Cadwell:

Exactly. Well, David McSwane, this has been a fantastic conversation. Where can people go to find out more about you and your work?

David McSwane:

But yeah, I worked for ProPublica propublica.org. I have a website, David, Nick swain.com. I'm on Twitter at David McSwane. So pretty easy to find me and there's links to purchase the book at all those places.

Joe Cadwell:

All right. Well, thank you again for taking your time to be on the show. This has been a lot of fun.

David McSwane:

Thanks for having me. My guess today has been David McSwane, author of Pandemic Inc, which is now available wherever you buy books. For more information to help you dive deeper into the subject. Be sure to check out the show notes for this episode, or visit the Grit Nation website at gritnation podcast.com. As always, thanks for listening. And until next time, this is Joe Cadwell reminding you to work safe, work smart and stay union strong

(Cont.) Pandemic Inc: Chasing the Thieves and Capitalist Who Got Rich While We Got Sick - David McSwane