“We are patriots and take pride in our products for the U.S. government, especially during this real medical crisis,” one of the company’s executives, James V. Punelli, wrote in an email on April 15. He also promised that the masks would be provided before May 1 “for certain, in full and with a very high-quality product.”
Punelli and his business partner, Raymond C. Jones, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday on the contract’s cancellation. An attorney who has represented the men in bankruptcy proceedings, Mark Lindsay, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Lea Crager, a FEMA spokeswoman, said Tuesday the company had requested an additional four-day extension, to May 15, but the agency denied the request. FEMA moved to cancel the contract Tuesday, a day after the deadline.
“FEMA will continue to coordinate with our federal and state partners, along with private vendors and supply companies, to identify and deliver medical supplies to prioritized areas,” she said in a statement.
The unfulfilled contract leaves the U.S. government without an expected delivery of 10 million of the sought-after masks, which provide enhanced protection against the novel coronavirus by filtering airborne particles and droplets. It was the latest misfire by the Trump administration in its frantic quest for medical supplies, in this case relying on an untested company for critically needed masks.
The point of contact listed for Panthera Worldwide in a federal procurement database is Sepp Benedikt, a retired Navy commander and intelligence officer. Included with his name is an address in Leesburg, Va., that is shared by the parent company. An online profile says Benedikt lives in Switzerland and served until February as “director of operations and business development” for Panthera in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It also includes a résumé with the full name of C. Joseph “Corwin” Medard Benedikt. Benedikt did not respond to requests for comment.
Biographical information associated with his name provided by the U.S. Navy indicates he enlisted as a student in 1983 and served for three years abroad, in Japan and then Italy, with the Naval Security Group, which conducts intelligence operations. He transferred to the Navy Reserve when he returned to the United States but did additional stints in Europe in the early 2000s, rising to the rank of commander in 2004. He retired in 2008.
A spokesman for the Air Force, Michael Dickerson, said records indicate Benedikt was employed as a civilian intelligence specialist from 1991 to 1995 with the 67th Intelligence Group in Los Angeles. The Defense Intelligence Agency declined to comment.
In April, Punelli said Panthera Worldwide was a “separate legal entity” from the parent organization and was procuring the masks through Department of Defense “contracting relationships” the company has. He did not elaborate on the relationships.
The company, which is no longer licensed to do business in Virginia following nonpayment of fees, has not previously manufactured or distributed medical equipment, according to records reviewed by The Post. Punelli has said the company is registered as an LLC in Delaware and allowed its Virginia registration to lapse “because we’re not doing business in Virginia.”
The parent corporation, Panthera Enterprises, declared bankruptcy last year, estimating in a filing that it could have as many as 99 creditors and liabilities as high as $50 million. Punelli and Jones are being sued by a subcontractor leasing the company’s primary asset, a 750-acre training facility in West Virginia. Punelli, in an email last month, dismissed the lawsuit as “frivolous.”
Business partners have accused Punelli and Jones of fraud in lawsuits filed in several states. In 2018, Punelli admitted to entering into a contract on behalf of an aerospace company that he had “no authority” to represent, according to his affidavit in a case brought against him and others in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
The no-bid contract for N95 masks with the embattled company struck procurement experts as unusual. Even under emergency circumstances, federal agencies are required to determine that contractors are responsible and to find the price fair and reasonable, said Daniel Gordon, a former administrator for federal procurement policy in the Obama administration and former acting general counsel in the Government Accountability Office.
While it is not uncommon for deliveries to be late or otherwise inadequate, Gordon said, “it’s extremely rare for contracts to be terminated for default.” Such a move can block the company from receiving any future federal contracts, he said.
Crager, the FEMA spokeswoman, said a contracting officer had performed a responsibility determination for Panthera. And she said the company would not be barred from future contracts and would not face a penalty fee, though she declined to elaborate on those decisions.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the failed contract was “yet another example of a systemic problem affecting contracting at FEMA.” He warned that such unfilled contracts place the “health and safety of our first responders” at risk.
The deal with Panthera reflects the mad dash by the Trump administration to secure critically needed personal protective equipment, or PPE. As part of the scramble, federal agencies have awarded bulk contracts to third-party vendors for supplies at prices nearly eight times what they would have spent earlier in the year, when U.S. intelligence agencies warned of a pandemic. In January, the government turned down an offer from a domestic manufacturer to produce millions of N95 masks.
The price that FEMA agreed to pay Panthera per mask, about $5.50, is significantly higher than what the government pays companies such as 3M, which charges as little as 63 cents per N95 mask, according to a company price index.
FEMA is not alone among federal agencies in agreeing to pay steep prices for the masks, which are in use in hospitals, clinics, police departments and fire and rescue stations from coast to coast. The Department of Health and Human Services last month finalized a $100 million contract for 10 million N95 respirators — meaning each mask would cost $10. An HHS spokesperson said the order was pending an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, as well as “other applicable certifications.”
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.