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A purported stockpile of 39 million masks that a health care workers’ union said they had found turned out to be a cruel scam, and the case is now being investigated by federal officials, a top federal prosecutor in Pennsylvania told the Los Angeles Times.
It turns out, federal prosecutors told the paper, there were no masks at all and the union was the target of a scam.
The union, Service Employees International Union's United Healthcare Workers West, previously said they had “launched an exhaustive search” for personal protective equipment due to the dangerous mask shortages putting health care workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus epidemic at risk. On March 26, the union said they had located an unnamed supplier with 39 million masks and was “connecting states, counties, health systems and individual hospitals to the supplier so they can purchase them in quantity” — an announcement BuzzFeed News and other national media outlets covered.
SEIU-UHW spokesperson Steve Trossman told BuzzFeed News at the time he did not know why the supplier, who he declined to name, had such a huge number of masks available.
"There was nothing magical about it. We just rolled up our sleeves and tried anybody who we thought might have a supply," Trossman said at the time. "It really was old fashioned elbow grease."
On Friday, US Attorney Scott Brady of the Western District of Pennsylvania told the Los Angeles Times that federal officials first became aware the purported masks were a fraud when they used the Defense Production Act in an attempt to seize them.
The officials discovered that a Pittsburgh businessman was acting as the middleman between the union and the supplier, communicating over WhatsApp with a broker in Australia and a supplier in Kuwait, who are both now being investigated by the FBI, the LA Times reported.
The Pittsburgh businessman, who has not been named, was reportedly unaware he had been duped, and is not under investigation.
“We believe we disrupted fraud,” Brady told the paper. “We are seeing [personal protective equipment] fraud in every variation, but mostly in respect to N95 masks. We have an anxious public, and resources are strained.”
The FBI and Brady’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
On Saturday, Trossman, the union spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News they were contacted by federal officials shortly after issuing the press release announcing they’d found the supply of masks.
The union shared the name of the supplier with law enforcement at their request, Trossman said. Their interaction with the officials was brief, he added, and they have not communicated since.
The union does not have any information regarding the federal investigation, Trossman said, adding that it had planned to connect hospitals in need of masks with the supplier, and would have left them to independently handle details such as quantity, payment, and delivery.
The union “had no role in any potential transactions and had no financial interest,” Trossman said. Brady said money never changed hands to close the deal.
Brady told the LA Times the union is not under investigation.
Now that they know the 39 million masks were never going to materialize, the union is doing everything they can to actually find their workers the protective equipment they need, he said.
“For the sake of health care workers, first responders and the patients we serve, we desperately wanted to see the purchases come through,” Trossman said. “But the fact is that this situation cries out for government action to dramatically increase and distribute the PPE health care workers and first responders need to be safe on the job and to keep their patients safe.”
An earlier version of this article, using information provided by the SEIU, said it had found 39 million medical masks in a warehouse. Federal prosecutors say the masks never existed, and the union was the target of a scam.