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De Blasio Donor Who Scored Big COVID Contracts Also Got Seat on Influential City Board

Charlie Tebele of the New Jersey firm Digital Gadgets joined Economic Development Corp. shortly before signing up to sell masks and ventilators to NYC.

Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at City Hall, Aug. 2, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A major donor to Bill de Blasio’s aborted presidential campaign and seller of COVID-related gear to New York has scored a seat on a powerful board controlled by the mayor.

Charlie Tebele, whose business has hawked hoverboards out of a New Jersey warehouse, joined the board of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, with his first appearance on May 6, meeting minutes indicate.

A spokesperson for de Blasio said the mayor made the appointment on March 18 — one week before Tebele and the city signed the first of nearly $119 million in no-bid contracts for masks and ventilators.

The nonprofit is the city’s chief vehicle for steering subsidies and real estate to private businesses, including the failed 2018 proposal to usher Amazon to Long Island City. Last year, EDC received more than $2 billion via exclusive contracts from the city Department of Small Business Services, making it City Hall’s single largest contractor, according to city comptroller records.

Digital Gadgets CEO Charlie Tebele.
Digital Gadgets CEO Charlie Tebele.
charlietebele/LinkedIn

As THE CITY has previously reported, Tebele’s firm Digital Gadgets LLC secured three emergency contracts in late March to sell masks and ventilators to the de Blasio administration as the coronavirus crisis surged and the city scrambled to secure gear.

The administration later canceled the largest of those contracts, for $91 million in ventilators and breathing kits, after the life-saving ventilators did not arrive — but not until after advancing $9.1 million to Digital Gadgets.

The firm has continued to be a major supplier of N95 and other masks to city government, with payments totaling more than $25 million since March 30 registered in the comptroller’s Checkbook NYC system.

Obtained PPP Aid

A New Jersey-based wholesaler of hoverboards, headsets and other electronics peddled on QVC and other outlets, Digital Gadgets had never before sold goods to New York City, and its emergency contracts bypassed standard contract reviews under an executive order from de Blasio. The Better Business Bureau gives the company an F rating on its website, based on its failure to respond to four customer complaints.

Federal records show that Digital Gadgets received Paycheck Protection Program aid of between $150,000 and $350,000, covering a dozen workers in New Jersey — even as the firm and a new Manhattan-registered company associated with Tebele called Digital Gadgets Medical LLC scored tens of millions of dollars in COVID-related business from New York, followed by Cook County, Ill., and other local governments across the U.S.

De Blasio Press Secretary Bill Neidhardt said in a statement that Tebele’s appointment to EDC by the mayor was approved by the full board on May 6. “Charles operates a tech-focused company that conducts business locally and internationally, and his guidance in those areas is relevant to EDC’s work,” Neidhardt said.

“All contracts were reviewed in accordance with City and State procurement laws,” he added.

Corporation records show EDC has committed up to $175 million to help spur the manufacturing and sales of face shields and gowns for sale to local health care providers struggling with a global shortage of COVID-19 protective gear.

Under its three contracts with the city Department of Citywide Administrative Services, Digital Gadgets ended up supplying nearly 1.9 million N95 masks at $4 each, along with 6 million KN95 masks and more than 2.2 million surgical-style masks.

“Some orders for COVID-related supplies were cancelled as hospital burn rates declined and the city achieved sufficient supplies to meet its needs,” said Nick Benson, a DCAS spokesperson.

City lobbying records show that in mid-May, Tebele hired the lobbying firm Kasirer for $3,000 a month to lobby city Health + Hospitals President and CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz, who is in charge of the city’s public hospitals as well as a network of testing sites and the city’s Test & Trace contact tracing operation.

The stated goal for Digital Gadgets Medical: “Build relationships in Covid-19 environment to raise profile and create partnerships.”

Tebele and his attorney did not respond to emails and phone calls from THE CITY.

More Than $44K in Donations

De Blasio has granted Tebele more than one post of honor, following at least $32,000 in contributions from the CEO and family members to De Blasio 2020 and the mayor’s Fairness PAC, and at least $12,750 to the mayor’s 2017 reelection campaign.

Taking a break from his mayoral campaign, de Blasio visited a Tebele family event, as publicized by the mayor’s social media team.

In May, Tebele was appointed to the mayor’s 31-member Small Business Sector Advisory Council, formed to “provide guidance to shape the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the mayor’s office.

At the time, a spokesperson for the mayor highlighted that “these bodies are purely advisory and participants were selected based on their expertise — nothing else.”

At the time of both appointments, Tebele’s Upper East Side townhouse was subject to a $568,275 lien from the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid 2018 taxes for him and his wife, Nancy, the city’s ACRIS property records system shows.

The tax lien was recorded on March 5, 2020. Records show the Tebeles’ full debt to the IRS paid as of June 24.

“He satisfied at the time all of our vetting requirements for moving forward in our appointment process,” Neidhardt said of Charles Tebele.

Touts ‘Supply Chain’ Prowess

In June 2019, Tebele signed for the $8.5 million purchase of an East 58th Street building, city property records show, with a $6.125 million mortgage. Digital Gadgets Medical registered at the address when established on April 2, 2020, and it has since been shopping COVID-protective gear to localities across the country.

“We control our own supply chain,” the website for Digital Gadgets Medical advertises — highlighting the logo of the NYC Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the agency that signed its New York City contracts.

A spokesperson for the department said the agency puts vendors under scrutiny, even for emergency contracts.

“The City of New York vets all vendors, including reviewing business records, tax records, and information available on public and private databases,” said Nick Benson, a DCAS spokesperson.

DCAS awarded the contracts in late March as the coronavirus shut down the city and de Blasio suspended normal procurement rules to reduce obstacles to getting supplies and services.

Until March, Digital Gadgets had never appeared in the city comptroller’s decade-old Checkbook NYC tracking system. Before awarding a contract under usual circumstances, an agency must make a “responsibility determination,” as outlined in the comptroller’s “Vendor Roadmap: A Guide for Doing Business with the City.”

That determination would follow a review that a vendor’s tax payments are up to date and that “there are no outstanding tax liens, warrants, or judgments against the business or any of its principals, affiliates, etc.,” the comptroller’s guide states.

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