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Gov. Hochul denies pay to play accusations over campaign contributions and award for COVID tests

Gov. Hochul at a press briefing July 1.
Darren McGee- Office of Governor
Gov. Hochul at a press briefing July 1.

Questions have been raised over campaign donations made to Governor Hochul by a small, family- owned company, during a time when they were paid over $600 million dollars to deliver COVID tests to the state. But the governor says there’s no pay to play going on.

The owners of Digital Gadgets, a New Jersey based company that sells electronic devices, along with members of their family, contributed $300,000 in campaign donations to Governor Hochul over the past several months, as reported in the Albany Times Union. LINK During that time period, the paper found, the company, run by the Tebele family, received $637 million from the state health department for sales of at home COVID-19 tests.

The transactions are documented on the State Comptroller’s website, known as OpenBookNY , but the comptroller did not have to sign off on the payments, as is required for most state contracts.

That’s because Hochul and her health department are operating under emergency powers authorized during the COVID-19 pandemic, and which the governor has extended monthly.

Hochul’s political opponents says the payments raise red flags. Until the pandemic, the company was not involved in selling medical supplies.

State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy is filing a Freedom of Information Request.

“I’m calling on Governor Hochul, and the department of health to turn over all of their communications with the Tebele family, and Digital Gadgets,” Langworthy said. “New Yorkers need to know who our government spoke to and when they spoke to them, and what was discussed.”

Langworthy says the governor should giving a referral to the state Attorney General’s office for an investigation, and he says he’s also asked the US Attorney to look into it.

Hochul says there’s nothing nefarious going on. She says the state simply had to act quickly last winter during the Omicron surge to deliver test kits to schools and other facilities, and the company was able to locate and produce tests quickly. She says he needed the flexibility provided under the emergency pandemic rules.

“The fact that there was someone who could meet that need at the time allowed us to deliver critically important test kits when nobody else, including the federal government, could get their hands on them,” Hochul said. “As a result we got kids back in school in January as opposed to them sitting home another semester.”

And she says she didn’t know the Tebele family donated to her campaign.

“I was not aware that this was a company that had been supportive of me,” said Hochul. “I don’t keep track of that.”

Hochul and her aides say Digital Gadgets was not the only company to provide the tests, though it did produce the largest number of kits. They say there were other companies involved as well.

Earlier in the week Hochul extended the emergency pandemic rules, until August 13th.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.