The NY Post is reporting that on Saturday, April 26, 2020, Robert Stewart Jr., a 33-year-old contractor from Virginia, invited an investigative reporter to take a trip on his private jet.
“I’m talking with you against the advice of my attorney,” Stewart laughed, before bringing J. David McSwane aboard a luxury Legacy 450 Flexjet, which he’d rented to deliver six million N95 masks during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Stewart had recently landed a $34.5 million contract with the US Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates the nation’s largest network of hospitals, promising to provide them with enough of the medical-grade (and at the time, scarce) masks to meet the overwhelming demand.
Problem was that there were no masks aboard the plane.
“The only reason I took the plane was because of my parents,” Stewart explained to McSwane. “They’re old and I didn’t want them to get sick, and I wanted them to see this.”
Stewart said he was a dedicated businessman with the best of intentions, trying to do his part in a global pandemic even though all the odds were against him. It wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t able to deliver as promised, even if he’d already spent some of the money —including, ostensibly, for the private jet.
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“It took me a while, but I broke through the bulls–t,” he told McSwane, painting himself as an underdog fighting against bureaucracy to save lives.
McSwane recounts the meeting in his new book, “Pandemic, Inc. Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick” (Atria/One Signal Publishers), out now, which illustrates how COVID-19 became a boon to entrepreneurs like Stewart.
Having access to essential medical supplies, or even just pretending to, became “an unexpected ticket to riches” early in the pandemic, McSwane writes, as the federal government “cast money out indiscriminately, like chum into the sea, and just see what bites.”
Like most of the COVID profiteers, Stewart wasn’t being paid by the federal government upfront. Instead, he got a purchase order from the VA, proving that his deal was backed by Uncle Sam. It was then up to Stewart to find a private investor to give him a high-interest loan, to pay for things like equipment, employees, and private jets. When the masks were delivered, “the feds pay up,” writes McSwane.
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The real money is made in the markup, which can be substantial. The average cost for an N95 is just $1 per mask. “But Stewart had gotten the VA to agree to pay almost $6 a piece,” writes McSwane. That’s a 350 percent markup. Multiply that margin by six million, and Stewart stood to walk away a very, very rich man.
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