Iowa's contact-tracing firm helped Trump, Reynolds campaigns

FILE - In this May 6, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Gov. Kim Reynolds, R-Iowa, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. After facing a workforce shortage for months, Iowa has awarded an emergency $2.3 million contact-tracing contract to a company owned by a Republican Party insider. The Iowa Department of Public Health selected Iowa City-based MCI for the contract out of 14 companies that applied andexperts questioning the data metrics. MCI is owned by GOP donor Anthony Marlowe, and has done work for President Donald Trump and Gov. Kim Reynolds' political campaigns. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci File) (Evan Vucci, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

IOWA CITY, Iowa – After facing a workforce shortage for months, Iowa awarded an emergency $2.3 million contact-tracing contract to a company that has worked for the campaigns of President Donald Trump and Gov. Kim Reynolds and is owned by a Republican insider.

The Iowa Department of Public Health selected Iowa City-based MCI for the two-month contract out of 14 applicants, saying it submitted the best proposal and that its political connections were not considered.

The company is expected to supply 200 contact-tracers to supplement the hundreds of public health workers who have failed to keep up with Iowa's fast-growing virus caseload. The first 60 graduated training and were beginning state work Friday.

MCI had pitched its services to Iowa officials since the beginning of the pandemic and says it does contact-tracing and management in six other states, including Alabama and Louisiana.

MCI is owned by GOP donor Anthony Marlowe, who has boasted that it played a key role in Trump’s 2016 victory and was among the state’s top backers of Trump’s unsuccessful reelection bid.

The contract, awarded after an expedited two-day bidding process, lasts only through January and will pay the company $36,400 daily, according to a copy released Friday.

Marlowe was an Iowa delegate to the Republican National Convention in August who spoke during the roll call vote as the state supported Trump's renomination. He said his company had grown from 400 employees in 2016 to 4,000 “thanks to your explosive economic policies.”

MCI subsidiary Mass Markets has been paid $1 million by Trump’s campaign for telemarketing and data services since 2016, campaign finance records show.

Marlowe said in 2016 the company made 80 million calls to help Trump get out the vote, raise money and draw crowds to events. This cycle, MCI provided custom software and telephony services to the campaign.

The Republican governor’s campaign paid MCI more than $18,000 for services between 2017 and 2019 to promote rally turnout, and Marlowe’s firm has recently done work for the Republican Party of Iowa.

Marlowe has become a major donor, giving more than $175,000 to Republican Party groups and candidates since 2017, including to Trump, Reynolds and the state party, records show. His wife began working at the White House earlier this year, although the couple has since divorced.

Iowa awarded the contract using federal coronavirus relief funds that must be used by Dec. 31, after contact-tracing workers had been unable to keep pace with new cases. Last month, the state’s third-largest county abandoned contact tracing amid exponential growth.

Democratic state Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City, ranking member of the appropriations committee, called the bidding process “terrible” because vendors had only 36 hours to apply.

“We knew for weeks and weeks we weren’t keeping up with contact-tracing. Suddenly we have this emergency and a competitive process that’s meaningless,” he said. “Now we have hired this company that has these close ties to the governor. This just reeks of inside dealing.”

He noted the state's no-bid contracts for a $26 million testing program and $21 million payroll system using coronavirus relief funds also faced favoritism allegations.

Independent experts had long recommended that Iowa hire hundreds or thousands more people to identify, contact and isolate those exposed to infected people to slow the spread.

Facing a virus surge that was overwhelming hospitals, the Iowa Department of Public Health announced Nov. 16 that it was seeking a contact tracing vendor. Citing the urgency, the department said proposals would be due the next day at midnight.

Fourteen companies submitted bids for the work. Marlowe said he wanted MCI, whose proposal was dated Nov. 16, to be the first to apply to demonstrate its nimbleness.

“Simply put, we move quickly and get things done,” he said.

Proposals had to be 10 pages. MCI’s 12-page proposal had one page of references and one page of graphics, which the department considered a “minor deficiency” but not disqualifying, agency spokeswoman Sarah Ekstrand said.

MCI was the top-scoring applicant out of the six that met the minimum score, she said.

Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said the governor’s office played no role in the request for proposals or contract selection. Marlowe said that he had not discussed the contract with Reynolds and that he doubted she was aware MCI worked on her campaign.

He released emails showing another MCI official had solicited state officials in March and state epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati in May to promote its services. Pedati signed the contract Nov. 20.