Bill Kaplan: Former U.S. Sen. Johnson fundraiser tried to cash in on COVID-19

Photo by Gage Skidmore

The U.S., including Wisconsin, is impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and catastrophic unemployment. Over 1.3 million COVID-19 cases nationally, including over 10,000 in Wisconsin (WI), with near 80,000 deaths nationally, over 400 in WI. “Twenty-five million workers or more could lose employer-based health insurance due to COVID-19 related unemployment” (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation). Moreover, Trump and Wisconsin GOP Senator Ron Johnson are still trying to kill the Affordable Care Act (covers about 22 million) by lawsuit, regulation or repeal.

Johnson claims: “I am the working man”. However, throughout his tenure the millionaire businessman has tried to take health care coverage from hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites. But Johnson says he is a “change agent” and wants to help Trump in “draining the swamp”. What the heck does that mean? After Johnson was elected in 2010 he hired a lobbyist as his first chief of staff (WP). It gets worse.

Until recently, Mike Gula was a top fundraiser for Johnson and other GOP senators. However, the veteran Republican fundraiser abruptly changed course. He formed a company called Blue Flame to sell critically needed masks, ventilators and other medical equipment. Politico reported that Gula “looks to cash in on coronavirus”. Gula’s bio on the company website said: “Since 2009 Gula … has raised over $318,000,000 (eye-opening) for (GOP) House and Senate members … .” Not a word about any background in health care logistics or medical supply. State and local governments, desperate for personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and other equipment, signed contracts with Blue Flame. But California and Maryland terminated their contracts when Blue Flame failed to deliver. Maryland GOP Governor Larry Hogan asked the state attorney general to investigate. Even the Trump Justice Department has started “a federal criminal investigation” (NYT). It looks like a price gouging-profiteering scheme built on lies.

Trump set the stage for this malfeasance. “In the early days of the pandemic (January), the U.S. government turned down an offer to manufacture millions of N95 masks in America” (WP). Trump and his cronies take no responsibility for PPE and other medical equipment shortages. Trump said: “You know, we’re not a shipping clerk”. And, governors were told don’t call unless they were “appreciative”. It is the “Wild West”, predatory capitalism. No wonder Blue Flame wanted to “cash in”.

Wisconsin Democratic Governor Tony Evers has been trying his best to function in this environment. He said: “Frustration level is high. … The federal government needs to help us … .” Evers put together a public-private state partnership to increase COVID-19 testing, but still needs chemicals and swabs for the tests. Moreover, rural WI is in a tough spot if COVID-19 spreads further. Rural hospitals are “already stretched to a breaking point” (Kaiser Health News). They lack staff, intensive care beds, PPE and other needed equipment. The outbreak in Green Bay should wake up state Republican lawmakers.

Johnson needs to address the corrupt conduct of his former fundraiser. He has not been “draining the swamp” of incompetence, corruption and Trump’s misdeeds.

–Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C., for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995 – 2009.

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