ST. PETERSBURG — As demand for coronavirus tests exploded, a local company emerged in the fast-growing market of nasal swabs.
Fillakit LLC popped up May 1 with few public details on who was behind it. Its website is blank. The only name on its state registration paperwork is a St. Petersburg lawyer who specializes in real estate and estate planning.
But by the end of its first week, Fillakit had won a $10.2 million contract from the federal government for swabs and other COVID-19 testing supplies.
As the pandemic spread in March, President Donald Trump’s administration rushed to create a new medical supply chain. It purchased $18 billion in testing supplies and other medical equipment in a matter of days, often turning to companies the government has never contracted with before — like Fillakit — and without seeking competitive bids.
The lack of scrutiny has meant a surge of taxpayer dollars poured into the companies with unclear backgrounds in medicine.
Against this backdrop, the unusual circumstances of Fillakit’s overnight success haven’t gone unnoticed. A watchdog organization and a national investigative news outlet have raised questions about the federal government’s vetting of this upstart, linking the company to a Pinellas County man with a history of financial troubles and a $2.7 million settlement in a federal fraud case.
Kira Doyle, the St. Petersburg lawyer and Fillakit’s manager, said the concerns are unfounded and paint an unfair portrait of the company.
In a series of email exchanges, Doyle described Fillakit as trying to fill a void in the medical supply chain. It is paying 200 workers starting at $15 an hour at a time of record unemployment, she said. It’s a small business that has managed to open while thousands like it face closure.
“If you are interested in writing an article about empowered female business owners or entrepreneurs creating jobs and helping this great country during an unprecedented pandemic, Fillakit LLC fits that profile,” Doyle wrote.
Doyle, however, declined to share the names of the other women involved. A two-page form filed with Florida’s Division of Corporation lists Doyle as Fillakit’s registered agent and manager, but mentions no other executives.
One of the few publicly available details about Fillakit is its mailing address: a suite in a nondescript office park in Conroe, Texas, a city about 40 miles north of Houston.
It’s where the company’s employees assemble coronavirus testing kits. Swabs for collecting a sample, a baggie and a labeled test tube are put in a kit before it is sent to a Kentucky warehouse for distribution.
The original plan for Fillakit was to create 10,000 to 20,000 kits per week, Doyle said. Then came the contract with the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which coordinates the country’s disaster response.
FEMA needed 4 million units of medical supplies by July 6. The company, not a week old, convinced the federal agency it could meet that goal.
That’s troubling to Steven Kelman, a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, who was surprised that the federal government awarded the contract. With no history, the company would have difficulty demonstrating it would be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, he said.
“I would be very worried about that,” said Kelman, a professor at Harvard University.
In an emailed response, FEMA’s press office said it “does not enter into contracts unless it has reason to believe they will be successfully executed.” They noted that Fillakit “was a registered contractor at the time the award was made.”
Federal agencies have a backstop that helps prevent fraud: Contractors only get paid if they complete the work or service. Earlier this year, FEMA canceled a $55 million contract with Panthera after news outlets reported that the Virginia-based company had no background in medical facewear and couldn’t deliver.
Fillakit has delivered some supplies. As of May 28, FEMA says, more than 1.1 million units were delivered and the company was paid $1.7 million. It has a month to send the remaining 2.9 million units.
“We fully expect to provide all of the contracted supplies ordered by the federal government and have thus far been very successful in fulfilling the contract,” Doyle said.
Doyle is a Stetson University trained lawyer who has practiced in Florida since 2003 and has a small firm in North East Park, but she said the “medical supply industry has always been of interest to me as medicine is more resistant to the major swings we see in the economy.”
Fillakit’s address is also used by Clear Gate Laboratories, according to the latter’s website. Clear Gate provides “leading-edge medical laboratory tests and services,” the website says.
Paul Wexler of Seminole is the director of Clear Gate Laboratories on its 2019 Texas business filings. He and a past business partner have registered multiple other companies at that same address — down to the building and suite number — including Everwest Supplies, which lists Doyle as the registered agent. It does not appear any other businesses associated with Wexler or Doyle received federal work.
In a phone conversation last week, Wexler, a local real estate agent according to his LinkedIn profile, said he is helping Fillakit obtain COVID-19 testing materials using his connections in the industry. Still, he says, he’s not directly involved.
“I’m good at helping start-ups,” Wexler told the Times, “and I offered to get them up and going and guide them through this.”
For two decades, Wexler and a past business partner have run afoul of state and federal regulators for violating do-not-call lists and other anti-telemarketing laws intended to prevent over-the-phone scams. They have left a trail of financial penalties, liens and lawsuits. The partner could not be reached for comment. There is no evidence he is involved with Fillakit.
Last year, ClearGate called an Iowa woman and offered to screen her DNA for cancer genes. If she told ClearGate her Medicare number, the company would send materials to provide a sample.
She gave her information, but when the DNA kit arrived, she balked and called the local sheriff’s office. Randy Maier, director of the Seniors vs. Crime program at the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, told the woman she was likely the victim of genetic testing fraud. It’s a scheme that the U.S. Department of Justice said last year has bilked Medicare out of billions of dollars.
The kit is now a prop that Maier brings to his workshops for seniors.
“I tell them, ‘This is an example of things you might look for in the mail that could be a scam,’ ” Maier said.
Wexler said genetic cancer screening is not a scam and advancements in the field are life changing. He said ClearGate has not taken advantage of anyone. Maier confirmed that the company did not bill the woman after she said she no longer wanted to participate.
The Federal Trade Commission called Wexler’s business activities “abusive” when it took him to court in 2012 for his over-the-phone debt relief company. The agency alleged Wexler’s company, Southeast Trust, for years cold-called people, sometimes using automated messages and in violation of do-not-call lists. The company, at times falsely identifying itself as a nonprofit, promised to fix people’s credit history and help them repay their debt. Victims ended up instead with new bills and unauthorized charges to their bank accounts, the agency alleged in court documents.
Wexler denied the charges but ultimately signed a settlement that included a $2.7 million judgment against him and his companies. He was banned from ever making robocalls or working in debt relief.
“We had a real business, and we were helping tons and tons of people,” Wexler said.
Doyle said Wexler is not an owner, partner or employee of Fillakit. His name doesn’t appear on Fillakit’s official paperwork, though his phone number is on the federal contract.
Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, a Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog, said the Fillakit case shows that the Trump administration "has failed to demonstrate it will take even the most remedial steps to provide oversight and transparency for the hundreds of billions of tax dollars it has spent in response to coronavirus.”
“That sends a pretty clear message to fraudsters that they need not worry about anyone holding them accountable,” Herrig said.
Asked about Fillakit’s background, FEMA said the agency, “reviewed the Fillakit’s quote and their contractor assurance statement. Nothing was found that would render this company ineligible for award.”
In an interview with the Times last week, Wexler maintained he did nothing wrong. He said the Federal Trade Commission action came after a vengeful competitor logged dozens of complaints against his company.
As the Times was reporting this story, ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, published a detailed review of the hundreds of first-time federal contractors tapped by the Trump administration to provide COVID-19 medical supplies. Federal agencies have promised $1.8 billion to these companies often without competitive bidding or vetting backgrounds, ProPublica reported.
Wexler’s past and his involvement with Fillakit figured prominently in the story, including details from a 2003 bankruptcy after his Colorado home building company hit rock bottom. Wexler was accused of fraud in a lawsuit over a $75,000 loan.
The post-9/11 recession hit his small development company hard, Wexler said, right as he was trying to expand. He said he later repaid the loan with interest.
“That has nothing to do with Fillakit and what’s going on there,” Wexler said. “It’s a shame people are trying to trash this. It’s a wonderful company.”