UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
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KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:
Jeff Polen is a mover, and not just, like, basic home moves. He's the guy you call if you need to uproot your office to an entirely different building. Jeff will organize all the people and all the logistics to make that happen. He's the guy who knows the guys who get things done.
JEFF POLEN: I just stay in touch with a lot of people. And with what I do for a living, I am in and out of companies every day. I'm in and out of government facilities every day.
DUFFIN: Jeff does really complicated moves. And he loves that.
POLEN: (Laughter) I was built for chaos.
DUFFIN: But you can't book moves when people can't go into buildings, so Jeff's business all but shut down in early March. He needed a new way to make money. And about that time, he got an email. This was March 13.
POLEN: I was sent an email from the state of Illinois that went out, I think, to a thousand small businesses.
DUFFIN: The cc'ed email addresses filled 6 1/2 pages. State officials were either trying to be very transparent or are just not familiar with bcc.
POLEN: I mean, if you looked at the head of the email, it just - they sent it to everybody that is registered the state site, asking, can you get any of these PPE items?
DUFFIN: PPE items - personal protective equipment - the masks, gowns, goggles, gloves - all the things that protect health care workers. The email said, if you can help, please reply within 48 hours. Love, Illinois.
By then, like the rest of us, Jeff had heard about the huge shortage of PPE supplies. All the normal channels tapped out. The national stockpile pretty much depleted, exports from China scarce. The federal government could step in and get companies to make more PPE and, like, centrally coordinate distribution between states. There are other countries doing that. But here, the feds declined. So doctors and nurses are getting scrappy. They've been doing things like reusing masks or piecing together office supplies to make face shields. And states are hustling to find some way, any way to get more PPE, including, apparently, mass emailing people who have nothing to do with medical equipment.
Had you been working with medical suppliers before this?
POLEN: No, never did anything with medical supplies ever.
DUFFIN: But COVID has turned everyone into a sort of first responder, even a local moving specialist.
POLEN: I knew I could get them everything they had on their list.
DUFFIN: Because what Jeff knew is that in a situation like this, it isn't really about medical experience. It isn't even about the PPE, the masks and gloves and gowns. It's about who you know and how do you get something that is stuck moving again.
Jeff replied to the email, I can help, but with a huge caveat - a caveat that would require the state of Illinois to essentially throw out the rulebook and do something that their systems are just not at all designed to do.
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POLEN: And trust me. I knew what I was saying to them was like - I thought they were going to, like, throw things at me through the phone. It just - it's not what they do.
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DUFFIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Karen Duffin. The market for medical supplies has turned into ultimate fighting for pencil pushers. Every state is left to itself. It is Rolodex versus Rolodex. And the only chain that matters in this fight is your supply chain. Today on the show, we will take you into one of those battles in the state of Illinois, where the difference between life and death comes down to a locked room filled with computer servers, a $3.5 million check and a man with a van.
When Jeff Polen gets that email from the state of Illinois - can you help us find medical supplies? - he's like, yeah, I can do that. I put people together. I move stuff around. Like, this is what I do.
Most of these supplies are made in China, so Jeff opens his Rolodex and starts to figure out, how do I, Jeff in Illinois, get to a factory in China? The first person he thinks of - one of his oldest contacts.
POLEN: The person that gave me my first adult job, the man who hired me at Miller beer when I was 20 years old. We still talk three to four times a week.
DUFFIN: That's his first call. His old boss now runs a screenprinting company in Chicago. He gets his T-shirts from China, so Jeff is closer. But next, they need someone who knows how to ship things from China.
POLEN: Within 20 minutes, we were on a three-way call with someone in Germany who runs the international shipping and logistics and everything like that. And because of that, he's been in and out of China quite a bit.
DUFFIN: They're getting warmer. Now they need to find someone who is actually in China, someone who can track down the goods and make sure they're legit.
POLEN: And all of us, if we're doing anything in China, we're calling Wei (ph).
DUFFIN: Wei works in textiles. Three months of the year, Wei lives in Chicago, collecting orders for things like the T-shirts for Leon's screenprinting business. The other nine months, Wei is in China, working with factories to fulfill those orders. So they conference in Wei.
POLEN: Now we're four people deep on a call.
DUFFIN: Hi, Wei. How are things in China? Cool, cool. So we just got this email.
POLEN: I was like, all right, can we get anything off of this list?
DUFFIN: And here, they have come to the perfect person. Wei works with textile factories, factories whose sewing machines are likely now converted to sewing masks, gowns, gloves. Wei tells them, I think I know how to do this. If we can't call in a big bulk order to one factory - that might be hard right now with all the competition for PPE - because I'm here in China and I know people, we can probably just, like, sneak orders in.
Wei starts knocking on factory doors. Hey, friend, do you have any assembly lines that we can just, like, borrow for a week or maybe just add our order to what you're already doing?
POLEN: Two hundred thousand pieces to one person or a hundred thousand here or a half a million there - it all depends on who has the lines.
DUFFIN: One assembly line at a time, Wei collects enough capacity to make 1 million masks. He also spots a half-million masks already made. He gets those, too. In total, this scrappy crew has gathered 1.5 million masks. But as Jeff is ironing out the details, he gets another call - someone from another state. Louisiana wants the same masks, and they will pay $2 million more than Jeff can get from Illinois.
This is the kind of moment that hustlers dream of. Jeff has the thing everyone wants and that they're willing to pay a huge premium for. Because the feds aren't centrally managing the bidding, states are in this crazy free-for-all brawl for supplies.
So Jeff starts getting pressure to take the Louisiana deal. And, frankly, he could use the money. His moving business has dried up. And he knows people who are capitalizing on this, buying supplies in bulk and selling them at huge markups.
POLEN: I can't stop them. I wouldn't even think to. I mean, congratulations, you've got money and you're making more money. I just don't know if right now that's the way the materials should be being used.
DUFFIN: Jeff looks around. And, you know, he's lived in Illinois for 48 years. His kids live there - his parents, his family. His wife is a nurse there.
POLEN: Me and my partners and group and everybody, we all have ties to Illinois. How would any of us feel if the next day, our mom or a relative or somebody died because they didn't have a mask because we wanted to make two more dollars apiece?
DUFFIN: They decide, we will take care of Illinois first, even if we lose money. And once Illinois is set, sure, then we'll broaden out. Jeff sends an update. The goods you want, I can get them. Jeff's email is opened 181 miles away in the state capital of Illinois in Springfield. The news makes its way through the emergency management team to the procurement team and then lands in the office that you've probably heard of but you're not really quite sure what they do, the state comptroller's office.
ELLEN ANDRES: The comptroller is the state accountant and writes the checks and sends them out and keeps track of all the funds.
DUFFIN: This is Ellen Andres. She is the assistant state comptroller. It is Ellen's job to make very, very sure the taxpayer money of Illinois is spent very wisely. Ellen and her team spend their days dotting i's, crossing t's, basking in the delight of fine print. So when she hears Jeff's caveat, she gets very nervous. Jeff tells them, if you want these masks, you have to pay for them upfront.
POLEN: A factory in China could give a rat's patoot who Illinois is. They want their money.
POLEN: It's not an order until you have money in my hands.
DUFFIN: No assembly line starts moving until the money is in a bank account in China. Jeff says, in fact, if you don't get the money to me by tomorrow, we might lose this deal and it could be weeks, if not months, until we get another one. But Ellen is thinking, prepay? That is comptroller blasphemy.
ANDRES: State government rarely, if ever, prepays anything.
POLEN: The state of Illinois is the classic, I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.
DUFFIN: The process for the state of Illinois just to get a contract in place takes three to six months.
ANDRES: It has to be signed in a certain time period. It has to be filed with the comptroller. And we obligate it, and then we set up a payment schedule.
DUFFIN: But one of the people on Ellen's team works on procurement, the people trying to make these deals. And she has watched them try to go the normal meticulous rules route and hit dead end after dead end.
ANDRES: We were losing out to other states where other states would bid higher amounts or they could get the money there faster.
DUFFIN: They could get a deal, think it was all set and then lose it overnight - literally overnight. Like they got this one contract for 300 ventilators through a different middleman. And overnight, the state of New York went directly to the supplier in China and bought all 300 ventilators. In fact, they bought every last ventilator in the warehouse at double the price. So by the time Ellen saw Jeff's message that he had these masks, she was very clear just how miraculous it was that they'd even gotten this offer. So she made a decision.
ANDRES: If we were going to stick to our rules of you have to receive the goods, get an invoice and send it back, we were not going to get any emergency supplies.
DUFFIN: It pains Ellen, but in this moment, saving lives trumps bureaucratic rules. If we must, we will prepay. But it wasn't a matter of just pulling out the procedure manual and whiting out the old rule. There was a much bigger obstacle. It had to do with the time that Jeff's message arrived.
ANDRES: It was Monday, and it was, like, 5-something.
DUFFIN: 5 p.m. Every day, on the second floor of the building where Ellen works in a locked room that you can only get into if you know the code sits a bank of computer servers. This is the room where most of the checks from the state of Illinois get printed. That's right, physical checks. That is what they will have to give Jeff. Illinois is not allowed to send wire transfers to foreign banks. Every day around 3:30 p.m., an IT guy in that room types in a code and the servers start churning through payments. They process 20 million payments a year, which means every single night, tens of thousands of payments go through those servers.
ANDRES: We have bond payments and pension payments. And we'll have social work payments. And, of course, the hospitals need their money. The K-12 system is still teaching. They need their money.
DUFFIN: By the time Jeff's deal came in at 5 p.m. saying, you have to get me the money by tomorrow, that system had already started running.
ANDRES: And so to stop everything to run it for one vendor, you're asking our system then to start back up again. You know, is that going to happen? Is it going to start? Is the computer going to start right up in the same place? Will we lose a file? Can we do this? Can we make this turn on a dime tonight without jeopardizing everything else that we have?
DUFFIN: They have never shut the system down since Ellen started there.
ANDRES: Oh, that's very unusual - very, very, very unusual.
DUFFIN: And Ellen does not know what to do. So she calls up Kathleen, the director of state accounting. They conference in John (ph) from IT. And together, the three of them call Jerry (ph), the programmer on the second floor who has to put in that code.
ANDRES: So we called down to him and said - asked him if he could wait, because at that point, I was not even 100% sure we could do it.
DUFFIN: Jerry says, I think technically it's possible we can do this, which leaves them to decide, should they do this? For this one check, should they shut down the payment processing system for the entire state of Illinois - you know, schools, police, social services?
ANDRES: But unlike other things, if we didn't get this, people would die.
DUFFIN: So they decide, shut it down. Jerry, the IT guy, puts the code into the system and everything grinds to a halt. And Ellen waits for three long hours while they find Jeff's check in the system, validate it, move it to the front of the queue and send it to the printer.
ANDRES: I'm trying not to breathe down Jerry's back.
DUFFIN: (Laughter) That's very nice of you.
ANDRES: So I'm in my office waiting for texts. And basically, it's Kathleen texting saying the statewide accounting piece is done. Then it's John saying, OK, it's loaded back through. And then Jerry's saying, I've received it, and I'll push it through to the printers.
DUFFIN: Jerry hits print on the $3.5 million check. And then, fingers and toes crossed, he turns the system back on. It starts up without a hitch. So they virtually high-five each other, pretty happy with what they'd done. Like, look at us rebels, bending a few rules, saving some lives - not an everyday occurrence in a state comptroller's office.
And so you went to bed that night thinking what would happen the next day?
ANDRES: That the guy would pick up his check in the morning and the state would have 1.5 million masks.
DUFFIN: But early the next morning, Ellen gets a phone call.
ANDRES: It all fell through.
DUFFIN: Jeff had hoped that the money would be transferred directly to his account. So when he wakes up and it isn't there, he had called them frantically. Like, my bank closes early today. If we're doing a physical check, you have to have it to me by 2 o'clock or we lose this deal. There are 181 miles between Jeff and his bank and that $3.5 million check sitting locked in the controller's server room.
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ANDRES: He was a good 3 1/2, four hours away, so there's no way he could come pick up the check. And we were going to lose an entire 1.5 million masks.
DUFFIN: After the break, Ellen bends one last rule.
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DUFFIN: As Ellen is thinking, we cannot lose this deal, she realizes the only way for Jeff to get that check in time would be to physically drive it to him.
ANDRES: That breaks every auditing rule I can ever think of.
DUFFIN: Ellen taking a $3.5 million check of state money out of the locked server room and putting it in her passenger seat and driving it to hand it off to someone she's never met - I imagine at that point, Ellen looking up at, like, a framed certificate of her - I don't know - comptroller oath, taking a deep breath and telling her employees...
ANDRES: I was just like, I'll just drive it to him. And I remember specifically, she said, can we do that? And I'm like, I don't know. So I just said, I'm hopping in the car right now.
DUFFIN: Ellen buckles up, the $3.5 million check riding shotgun, and takes off. On the other side of Chicago, Jeff gets a call from the comptroller's office telling him a woman named Ellen is coming to you.
POLEN: She's jumped in her car, and she's headed towards you. I said, well, call her and tell her I'll meet her halfway. We decided on Dwight. Dwight's in the middle of nowhere.
ANDRES: It's about - yeah, about 120 miles straight down Interstate 55.
POLEN: But there's two exits in Dwight. There's the Dwight prison exit, and then there is the next exit that has a McDonald's and a Hardee's and stuff like that.
DUFFIN: They agree, we'll meet at that McDonald's.
Had you ever met this guy before?
ANDRES: No. That was my first time, so I really knew nothing.
POLEN: I didn't know anything about the person. I reached out to my contact, and she told me, you know, she's close. She'll be there soon.
ANDRES: She said he's in a white SUV at the McDonald's on the far side.
POLEN: I actually got there first, so I parked in the back portion. I was actually laughing because the McDonald's closed to people going in, so you have all of these older people going through the drive-through because they can't drive their trucks. So it's like a car and then two people on foot...
POLEN: ...And then a car and then two people on foot.
ANDRES: And so I drive into the parking lot and drive around, and there's a white SUV. And...
POLEN: She pulled up alongside me, and I got out of my car.
ANDRES: You know, I hopped out, and we kind of, like, looked at each other. And he said, do you have a check? And I'm like, yes. Do you have an ID?
POLEN: And I said, here. I made a copy of my driver's license. Here's my state contractor badge.
ANDRES: Because of the whole COVID crisis, it was - literally, we talked 6 feet apart and...
POLEN: We were both, like, well, do we shake hands? We bumped elbows. And she handed me the check.
ANDRES: And he opened the check and literally hopped in his car and drove off.
DUFFIN: Did you order food after this? Did you go through the drive-through?
ANDRES: OK, I did go through the drive-through.
DUFFIN: What did you get?
ANDRES: I got a hamburger, fries and a very large Diet Coke.
DUFFIN: I hope you expensed this.
ANDRES: No, I work for the state of Illinois. We - they don't pay for food.
DUFFIN: I feel like if you're speeding a $3.5 million check to save people's lives, they should pay for your lunch (laughter).
ANDRES: It's all in a day's work.
DUFFIN: Meanwhile, Jeff is racing the check to his bank. He gets to the bank with 20 minutes to spare. He signs the wire transfer. But that won't, you know, land in the bank account in China until the next day. So he holds up the form and asks the lady at the bank to take a picture of him.
POLEN: I sent it to Germany that sent it on to China. And the lady in China assumed that was a completed wire transfer and started labeling our stuff and getting the orders ready to ship.
DUFFIN: Oh, wow. She took it on faith. Like, OK, the money's coming.
DUFFIN: And in this case, faith paid off. Earlier this month, 1.5 million masks made their way from the factory lines in China to the state of Illinois. About half are in a warehouse in Springfield. The other half are in a former high-school-turned-warehouse in Des Plaines, where, by the way, they filmed "The Breakfast Club." And today, masks are going out from there to hospitals, first responders, senior citizen homes.
And Ellen and her colleagues say, we are so, so, so glad that we got these masks. But also, it's a kind of bittersweet win. They say, we know that when we win a deal like this, it means that New York, Louisiana, California lose supplies that we know that they also need. We don't like bidding against our neighbors. They say - and a lot of states have been saying - that it would be great if there had been a more centralized plan that people followed, a national stockpile fully stocked, a coordinated federal response.
But instead, what we have in this pandemic are Ellens and Jeffs. We have a Hail Mary email from a state bureaucrat that gets caught by a guy who runs a moving company who just happens to still be in touch with his very first boss, who knows a guy in Germany, who knows a guy in China, who has contacts at exactly the right factories with people who just happen to like and trust him enough to let him sneak in a few orders that get handed off to government officials who are willing to shut down the payment processing system for an entire state and take a multimillion-dollar check on a road trip. They got lucky this time.
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DUFFIN: If you've bent any rules during this pandemic, please email us at email@example.com. We're also on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook - @planetmoney. Thanks to Susana Mendoza and Megan Seitzinger from the Illinois state comptroller's office, who also spoke with us for this story. Thanks also to Ayda Pourasad, Susie Cummings (ph), Abdon Pallasch and Jayette Bolinski.
This show was produced by Darian Woods, James Sneed and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show. Also, check out PLANET MONEY's daily show, The Indicator. They're doing amazing stories on this economic crisis day by day. And if you liked this episode, maybe your friends or family might, too. Share it with them.
I'm Karen Duffin. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
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