Health officials and Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. say a $1 million no-bid contract awarded to Avera Inc., whose management includes Bryan’s daughter, Aliyah Bryan, and campaign intern Michael Pemberton, was proper. Three companies were considered but only Avera responded, he said.
But one of those companies, Aytu BioScience, said it was not contacted.
Senators criticized the Department of Health Tuesday for what they described as circumventing the procurement process in awarding a $1 million deal for COVID-19-related contact tracing to tech startup Avera. According to Avera’s webpage, the company’s founders and management include Bryan’s daughter, Aliyah Bryan, and CEO Michael Pemberton, a former campaign intern for Bryan. Pemberton graduated from the University of the Virgin Islands this year, according to his LinkedIn profile. Aliyah Bryan graduated last year. Neither has ever run a project of a similar scale. The company does not yet have a business license.
In a statement Thursday, Health Department officials asserted that the COVID-19 epidemic is an emergency and contact tracing is critical work that must begin quickly, and the territorial state of emergency allows going outside of the usual contracting process. Plus, only one company – Avera – responded. And no contract has been awarded yet, according to the department. But Avera is the one company with a proposal and the one company being vetted at present.
“The current need for contact tracing is a matter of public health exigency, and therefore, the solicitation was conducted utilizing the provisions of the executive order which declared a state of emergency and suspended competitive bidding,” Health Department officials said in the statement.
“Those companies were Aytu BioScience, AMC Health and Avera Inc. The department requested a COVID-19 contact tracing application that could support its surveillance needs. Only Avera Inc. responded to the request. The department moved forward with the vetting process once the proposal was received,” the officials said in the statement.
But Josh Disbrow, chief executive officer of Aytu BioScience, said Thursday his company did not receive a request or any other contact.
“We would be very happy to provide a quotation, but we do not have a record of being contacted by the Virgin Islands Department of Health,” Disbrow said.
The Source is awaiting comment from the third business, AMC Health.
The Health Department’s statement says, “Currently, the department has no contract in place with Avera, Inc.”
But, in Tuesday’s Finance Committee meeting, Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said “they are in the process of fulfilling the contract.” She said the department had been in discussions with Avera over the contract for several days, and it’s “on the vendor now … once it gets back to us, we will make sure it gets finished within the next week.”
Encarnacion said the swiftness of the procurement process, with 72 hours for vendors to reply, was a matter of public health exigency. The Health Department’s release said, “the solicitation was conducted utilizing the provisions of the executive order, which declared a state of emergency and suspended competitive bidding,” referring to Bryan’s recent executive order extending the state of emergency.
But Disbrow said Aytu BioScience can “turn quotations around quickly. If a quote is desired, I would be pleased to have someone contact me directly … I am the CEO of the company and will ensure a quotation is provided promptly.”
In a 30-minute Facebook Live virtual session on Thursday, that received more than 10,000 views, Bryan said not only was his daughter part of Avera, but he regarded Pemberton as “a part of my team and a part of my family.”
Bryan said he was under the impression the “business has been running for over a year and a half now,” but according to the V.I. Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, it applied for a business license and trademark within the last two weeks.
Bryan said the Health Department followed proper protocol and accused media and senators who questioned the deal of “attacking the children,” referring to the youth of Avera’s management.
“It’s election season 2020, and it comes as no surprise to me that my political enemies want to do something because they think this is a referendum on Albert Bryan, who is going to get elected or not get elected,” Bryan said. “It is fit for leaders to eat their young for them to be successful.”
Bryan said the Legislature’s and media’s stance on what had transpired between Avera and the Health Department was an “attack.”
“You want to attack, attack me. Don’t attack our young people in the Virgin Islands. Disparaging with signs of corrupt … treating them like common criminals when they have done nothing wrong … Don’t attack spouses and family, deal with me … Don’t attack our children and make their bones lay the way for the election,” Bryan said.
Senators at Tuesday’s hearing and subsequent reports in the VI Source and the Virgin Islands Daily News have focused criticism not on the adult children, but on the governor, the inexperience of the company, the procurement process and the outward appearance of favoritism or nepotism. Other media may have taken other approaches.
The virtual press conference was flooded with questions from the public about the Avera deal, but Bryan largely did not respond to those questions, focusing his comments on other issues.