USA TODAY received a tip this spring that a Utah startup company with no public health experience received millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to provide COVID-19 tests in several states thanks to political connections.
We were curious.
Was this another example of the public health system being used for financial gain during a national crisis, when many companies profited?
We were told to contact Paul Huntsman, a wealthy businessman and chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune.
Huntsman told us how disappointed he was in the newspaper's coverage of the startup, Nomi Health, and its subcontractors. And he believed The Tribune was not aggressively covering alleged cronyism, pay-to-play, abuse of power, conflicts of interest and no-bid contracts being awarded to friends of Republican politicians.
He also criticized Nomi’s political ties to Spencer Cox, who beat Huntsman's brother, Jon, in the 2020 Republican primary and became Utah's governor.
Former Executive Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce, who resigned in August 2020 following disputes with Huntsman over news coverage, said she consistently encouraged rigorous reporting about the 2020 gubernatorial campaigns, supported public records requests, and publicly praised Tribune reporters who broke numerous stories about the state’s pandemic response.
Spending $1 million on Jittai
Huntsman, also a Republican, told us about Jittai, a company he created in March 2021 whose name means "substance" in Japanese. And he introduced us to Spencer Gilbert of Los Angeles, an entrepreneur and longtime friend.
The two men spent at least $1 million through Jittai to investigate Nomi, with most of the money used on legal fees to obtain public records, Gilbert told USA TODAY. Jittai is headquartered at Huntsman's 74,000 square-foot office building overlooking Salt Lake City.
Huntsman, in an interview with USA TODAY in June, said that of course he supported his brother’s campaign, but the efforts by him and Gilbert have been to find the truth. Huntsman said his brother has a “great position” with Ford as adviser to the automaker’s chief executive.
Huntsman and Gilbert gave USA TODAY access to a database of thousands of documents obtained through Jittai. Huntsman said he filed more than 400 public records requests in several states and used documents from Jittai to write editorials in The Tribune that were critical of Nomi.
USA TODAY reviewed those documents and confirmed their accuracy by speaking directly with the people named in them. It also filed public records requests with five states and three federal agencies, which provided USA TODAY with more than 30,000 documents, including the ones originally flagged to us by Huntsman.
We also examined publicly available campaign finance reports, Securities and Exchange Commission filings and lawsuits. And we traveled to Salt Lake City and conducted dozens of interviews in our investigation of Nomi Health, the companies associated with it and the close ties they had to Republican political leaders.
Nomi on June 8, sent USA TODAY a letter from its attorney, saying questions from reporters "reflected a sharp failure to adequately research Nomi Health's life-saving operations and could yield an inaccurate, needlessly harmful story that would undermine the public interest."
Among its requests were that USA TODAY allow Nomi "to review the article language before it is published."
USA TODAY as well as most major news organization do not allow sources to read stories prior to publication.
Tribune verified documents
In Salt Lake City, current Tribune Executive Editor Lauren Gustus said her newsroom also independently verified all documents from Jittai that were used for its COVID-19 coverage.
Gustus said The Tribune, not Jittai, sought out and paid an investigative freelance journalist to bolster reporting on Utah's COVID-19 response. That journalist used documents from Jittai in the reporting.
"The Tribune has helped Utahns understand how their state government responded to coronavirus for two years now, breaking stories on an $800,000 order for hydroxychloroquine, SEC inquiries into Utah's testing program and federal investigators' recent findings that TestUtah (ran by Nomi Health) posed an imminent threat to public health and safety,” Gustus said.
"Our independent reporting is unmatched in Utah, and our reporters will continue to seek out truth and break stories related to this and other issues important to our readers.”
Nomi Health: 'Baseless' attacks
Mark Newman and Josh Walker, co-founders of Nomi, said Huntsman has used his wealth and position at The Tribune to spread rumors and innuendo about their company.
"We have refuted every single one of his points. … It's just baseless," Walker said. "There are people who didn't get health care services because of his articles."
Huntsman, who bought The Tribune in 2016 and made it a nonprofit entity three years later, told USA TODAY he created Jittai because he didn't have faith that The Tribune's newsroom could "step up" to investigate Nomi.
Huntsman said The Tribune newsroom was "compromised" under Napier-Pearce.
Cox, right after he was elected governor three months later, hired her as his communications director.
"I went back and read all the stories from our political team and TestUtah and Cox, and we were compromised," Huntsman said. "That's not everyone else's opinion, and it will sound like political sour grapes."
Napier-Pearce, who led The Tribune when it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, said she was stunned by Huntsman's claims and disputed them.
"As for Mr. Huntsman’s ludicrous assertion that I suppressed investigative reporting in order to get a state job, nothing could be further from the truth," she said. "Furthermore, I don't recall having any contact or conversations with then-Lt. Gov. Cox or anyone from his staff or campaign during his campaign. When I left The Tribune in August 2020, I planned to find another editorial position and was weighing several options out of state when the Cox campaign approached me."
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute in Florida, said it's rare for a newspaper board chair to be heavy-handed in a newsroom, and it's unheard of to create a personal investigative unit.
"I think he has a lot of money, and he doesn't have any particular obligation to spend it on the newsroom," Edmonds said. "But it seems to me there are questions to be raised on whether this fits a pattern of supporting his brother's previous campaign for governor. At a minimum, he seems to be fired up by this set of issues."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Paul Huntsman, friend spend $1M to examine Nomi no-bid COVID contracts