Health ministry pressed for multi-million euro face mask deal now under scrutiny
The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport was decisively involved in closing a face mask deal with Relief Goods Alliance (RGA), the organization launched by Sywert van Lienden. The consortium that was responsible for closing the deal did not want to move forward with the deal, and only agreed to do so "under protest," concluded researchers from Deloitte in their long-awaited report. While Van Lienden and his partners said the report vindicates them, the current medical care minister said Van Lienden deliberately obfuscated the relationship between the supposedly non-profit deal and his for-profit company.
The face mask purchase was carried out by LCH, a national consortium of health suppliers. They examined the proposal from Van Lienden and his business partners, and initially rejected it. Still, the ministry wanted to go through with the deal, also to prevent RGA from competing with the LCH. Regardless, LCH thought it was unnecessary to purchase as many face masks as possible, which the ministry wanted. A disagreement between the ministry and LCH remains regarding who is actually responsible for the face mask deal.
The LCH was quickly established because there was a worldwide shortage of protective equipment, such as face masks, which made purchasing difficult for every country. Van Lienden initially came into contact with the consortium in March 2020 at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic on the insistence of the ministry, the report stated. That situation did not initially go well, and another attempt was made in April. That also failed because Van Lienden, then still with his non-profit foundation Stichting Hulptroepen Alliantie, was at risk of becoming a competitor of the LCH, the LCH claimed. Nevertheless, a deal was concluded later that month, partly because the ministry simply felt that as many as possible should be purchased. The researchers note that at the same time, "media and political attention had also peaked" when it came to the supply of face masks.
The researchers said there was "greater than average involvement" from the ministry in the deal with Van Lienden. The ministry was less involved than with most other suppliers.
"It's true," said Medical Care Minister Conny Helder about it. The consortium indeed indicated that the order was not necessary, because there was sufficient stock, she affirmed. "At the same time, there was also enormous pressure to buy more than necessary." That's why her department was involved in the deal.
Helder: Van Lienden caused intentional confusion during “great uncertainty”
The minister repeatedly emphasized the "period of great uncertainty" and the crisis situation in which her department found itself. She also pointed to the Tweede Kamer, which put pressure on the Cabinet to purchase as much protective equipment as possible. It is not clear why the meddling increased in this specific deal.
"There are certainly mistakes made by not going through the protocols," the minister acknowledged. But "of course, in a crisis situation, mistakes are always made," she added
Sywert van Lienden and his business partners also caused confusion during the coronavirus crisis, and consciously maintained it, with regard to the relationship between the non-profit Stichting Hulptroepen Alliantie and the for-profit Relief Goods Alliance, Helder wrote in a letter to the Tweede Kamer. It was unclear how the BV and the foundation were related to each other. There was clearly a question of intermingling, she continued.
The report failed to show why Van Lienden and his partners ultimately chose to set up the commercial company, she said. The report did state that those involved in RGA "exercised considerable pressure - via public opinion, social media and political inputs" on the health ministry, and gave an "incorrect representation of things." Helder concluded that RGA "even consciously played parties against one another,” referring to the ministry and LCH as it coordinated the procurement of protective equipment.
She wrote that she was surprised to have learned that the confusion fostered by Van Lienden’s for-profit and non-profit groups was deliberately maintained. When the agreement was finally concluded, the ministry and the LCH were aware, according to Helder, that RGA was a commercial company. LCH was against Van Lienden's original offer to arrange the purchase and distribution of face masks himself, because this would interfere with the LCH's working method. Both VWS and LCH indicated "consistently that they did not want a second purchasing and distribution channel adjacent to the LCH", said Helder.
Van Lienden and partners feel vindicated, saying there were “no irregularities”
Van Lienden and the two people with whom he sold masks to the government said they feel exonerated by the report about the controversial deal. Deloitte's final report published Friday "showed that no irregularities have occurred" at RGA, Van Lienden, Camille van Gestel and Bernd Damme said in a joint statement.
According to the three, the government had consciously decided not to do business with their non-profit foundation. "The investigation makes it clear that the government was aware at the time that it concluded a commercial agreement with RGA," said Van Lienden, Van Gestel and Damme. According to them, RGA was a commercial party "that ran risks and could also make a profit, just like all other suppliers". According to the three, the prices that RGA asked for the face masks were "in accordance with the prices set by the government at the time".
Van Lienden, Van Gestel and Damme do acknowledge that they "could have communicated better in retrospect." For example, when Van Lienden said that he would supply the face masks "for free” and without profit, they could have made it clearer they were speaking about the non-profit organization and not the RGA. "We now understand that this is not understood that way, partly due to the lack of relevant context."
In July, Van Lienden and Damme were dismissed by the court as directors of the non-profit organization. Van Gestel had already resigned earlier. The court appointed Wouter Jongepier as director. He will be responsible for finding out whether the foundation can file a claim for damages against Van Lienden and the others. In a response, Jongepier said he is studying the Deloitte report. It appears that "the dismissed directors have misused the goodwill that was built up for their own gain," he said.