ALBANY — One New York City family, led by entrepreneur Charlie Tebele, has donated nearly $300,000 to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s campaign.
Records also show that since December, Tebele’s company was paid $637 million in taxpayer funds to provide the state Department of Health — an agency controlled by Hochul — with at-home COVID-19 test kits. The huge expenditure was made without the agency conducting competitive bidding.
The $637 million from the Department of Health began on Dec. 30, and the agency made 239 separate payments through March 25 to Tebele’s company, according to state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s OpenBookNY website.
The website, however, provides no record of a formal contract being signed between Digital Gadgets and the Department of Health. Jennifer Freeman, a spokeswoman for DiNapoli’s office, said that no such contract existed: The Department of Health entered into “purchase orders” instead with the company, she said.
“These purchase orders did not come to (DiNapoli’s office) for review and approval,” Freeman said.
On Nov. 26, Hochul had signed an executive order declaring a new COVID-19 state of emergency and suspending certain aspects of state finance law. The order suspended competitive bidding for certain contracts as well as the normal contract review and approval process conducted by DiNapoli’s office, which oversees state government spending.
As the pandemic has subsided and surged, Hochul has extended the executive order on a monthly basis; its current expiration date is Aug. 13.
A Hochul senior advisor, Bryan Lesswing, said the administration had spent the $637 million to increase at-home testing capacity in order to protect vulnerable New Yorkers from the highly transmissible omicron strain. During last winter’s spike, he said, at-home tests were considered a scarce commodities and global demand was high.
“Digital Gadgets successfully delivered all the tests the state needed within the requested timeline,” Lesswing said.
There were two purchase orders totaling 52 million tests. The Digital Gadgets prices were for $13 per test in one instance and $11.50 in the other.
“Given the circumstances and the urgency of the situation, the state determined that the price was fair and it was in the state’s best interest to move forward with the procurement,” Lesswing said.
Lesswing said the state contacted multiple vendors and Digital Gadgets was the sole company that could meet the state’s need: Supplying a significant quantity of tests before schools reopened in early January 2022.
The state has also procured tests from seven additional vendors, he said.
An attorney representing Charlie Tebele, Harlan Lazarus, said in a statement that, “At the height of omicron when even the federal government could not supply tests, Mr. Tebele supplied tens of millions of tests to the State of New York in record time.”
Lazarus said Charlie Tebele had “never had a conversation” with Hochul about the DOH procurement.
Digital Gadgets landed a $100,000 contract in 2021 — during the tenure of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — to supply personal protective equipment via the state Office of General Services. But no money has been paid out from the contract, according to DiNapoli’s website. In March 2020, Cuomo’s Department of Health inked a $600,000 contract with the company for pandemic medical equipment. But DiNapoli’s website indicates those funds were returned two months later.
In the spring of 2020, Digital Gadgets drew attention for landing $119 million in emergency no-bid contracts from then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to provide COVID-19 supplies, such as ventilators and masks. Those contracts came on the heels of about $44,000 in donations from Tebele family members to de Blasio’s campaigns and related political action committees.
In May 2020, the nonprofit news organization The City reported that Digital Gadgets had failed to provide any of a promised 2,000 ventilators or 200,000 “breathing kits” to New York City, resulting in the cancelation of a $91 million contract.
Since taking office 11 months ago, Hochul’s campaign has raised a record-breaking sum of more than $34 million, including large donations from people with business before her administration. At campaign fundraisers, emails show, Hochul has spoken to donors about their state government business, and in some cases directed donors to speak to her campaign staffers, who in turn have facilitated contact between donors and Hochul’s governmental Executive Chamber staff.
Even among that long list of donors, the Tebele family donations stand out.
Charlie Tebele and his wife, Nancy, are longtime political donors in New York. By mid-December 2021 — before the payments from the Department of Health began — three members of the Tebele family had donated about $70,000 to Hochul since the beginning of this election cycle.
The maximum an individual could donate to Hochul is $69,700 — and both Charlie and Nancy Tebele reached that threshold on May 18.
Since then, an array of other Tebele family members have given large amounts to Hochul, including several with no other history of donating in New York state elections, and two listing the same home address in Manhattan as Charlie and Nancy.
Additional Tebele family members’ campaign contributions
Before Charlie and Nancy maxed out their individual donations in May, only one family member – Leon – had donated to the campaign. After May, five more began donating to Kathy Hochul’s campaign.
|Arlette Tebele Kassin*
In May, Hochul’s campaign hired a young member of the Tebele family to join its fundaising staff, retaining James Tebele as a paid campaign fundraising “finance associate” for about $3,700 a month. Since November, James Tebele had been a paid intern on the Hochul campaign; according to his LinkedIn profile, he is an undergraduate at New York University expected to graduate next June.
According to his LinkedIn profile, James Tebele previously did work for Blasio’s 2020 campaign for president — the other campaign to which a significant number of Tebeles donated.
In Hochul’s campaign filing, James Tebele is listed as as having the same Manhattan address as Charlie and Nancy Tebele.
One day, $104K
The Tebeles generosity to Hochul peaked on June 24, when the governor received donations from at least five members of the extended Tebele family that totaled $104,000.
They included $20,000 from Mathieu Tebele. Three days later, he donated $27,000 more, bringing his total to $47,000.
Mathieu Tebele’s listed address in Hochul’s campaign filing is the same address as Charlie and Nancy Tebele’s residence, a large, Upper East Side home purchased in 2013 for $11.5 million.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Mathieu Tebele graduated from Syracuse University in 2018 and worked as business development manager at Digital Gadgets between January 2020 and September 2021. In November he co-founded his own company, Rendezvous Equity, a fund that invests in non-fungible tokens (NFTs). His $47,000 to Hochul was the first time he had ever made a donation in a New York state election.
Mathieu Tebele told the Times Union he had plenty of his own money from the NFT business to donate the $47,000 to Hochul, of whom he was a “big supporter.” He declined to speak about the $637 million in Department of Health payments.
Also listed in the Hochul filing at the same Manhattan address is Leon Tebele, who has donated $27,000 to Hochul since December, including $7,000 on June 29. While his current occupation was not clear, in a 2019 campaign filing submitted by de Blasio’s campaign for president, a “Leo Tebele” was listed as working at Digital Gadgets.
Also on June 24, Hochul received $7,000 from Charlie and Nancy Tebele’s daughter, Brooklyn artist Arlette Tebele Kassin, and $7,000 from Arlette’s husband, David Kassin. Neither had ever donated before in a New York state-level election.
Charlie has two brothers, Jeffrey and Elliot. A Jeffrey Tebele gave $30,000 to Hochul on June 24, while an Elliot Tebele gave $40,000 the same day. The three brothers started out their careers working out of their father’s midtown Manhattan electronics store, according to Jeffrey Tebele’s online biography. Besides giving to Hochul, Elliot Tebele had never donated before in a New York state election.
In June, Nancy and Charlie Tebele also gave $20,000 each to Hochul’s running mate, Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado. Delgado was named lieutenant governor by Hochul in May, an appointment that followed the resignation of ex-Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin in the wake of a federal criminal case alleging that he participated in a campaign straw donor scheme during his 2021 bid for New York City comptroller.
Under state law, a political donor cannot be reimbursed by another individual or entity for making a campaign contribution — a tactic that’s been used in the past by donors looking to skirt contribution limits.
Charlie Tebele’s attorney, Harlan Lazarus, said that in the instance of the Tebele family’s giving, “Mr. Tebele’s children are successful businesspeople in their own right and make political donations independent of their father.”
Before the spate of family donations to Hochul, there were prior instances of Tebele family members donating en masse to campaigns on the federal level. The amounts were smaller, however, because federal campaigns have much lower donations limits than New York’s.
Leo, Charlie, Nancy, Mathieu and another family member, Robert, each gave $2,900 to de Blasio’s presidential bid on June 27 or June 28, 2019. Between Sept. 23 and Oct. 4 of last year, Leo, Nancy, Charlie, Mathieu and Arlette all gave $2,900 to U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn.