Aspen Medical was given more than $1 billion in government PPE contracts despite no experience in large-scale procurement

Health Minister Greg Hunt wrote and signed a glowing letter of commendation for a politically connected healthcare company while it was in the midst of negotiations with his department for lucrative multimillion-dollar PPE deals.

Canberra-based Aspen Medical would go on to win taxpayer-funded contracts, without a public tender, worth more than $1.1 billion. After combined losses of $7 million over 2018 and 2019, these deals have seen the company’s pre-tax profits soar to more than $420 million during the pandemic.

Although Aspen Medical had no prior experience in such large-scale procurement, its PPE deals with the Department of Health were worth $500 million more than any other government supplier, including those with a background in the industry. 

A Four Corners investigation, in collaboration with Colombo’s Sunday Times, has also established Aspen Medical has been embroiled in an international criminal probe into corruption and money-laundering. 

Close up of Hunt, eyes darting across over his black mask.
Health Minister Greg Hunt has praised Aspen Medical in Parliament on multiple occasions.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

The letter from Mr Hunt, under the Commonwealth government crest, described Aspen as, “a world recognised, nationally awarded company” and “a trusted supplier of… health services to the Australian government”.

It was left undated, and addressed, “To whom it may concern”.

The document was prepared and signed, however, in late February 2020.

In a statement to Four Corners, Aspen Medical said throughout February it was filling “initial smaller orders placed with us by the Department of Health for PPE… not pursuant to a contract”, which “began increasing in size”.

Department of Health documents released under Freedom of Information legislation show one contract for PPE was executed on February 22, 2020.

The letter also came after the company had been hastily engaged — with no proper contract in place — to procure thermometers for Australian ports and airports.

Former Health Department Secretary Stephen Duckett said he had never seen a letter like it.

“Here we have a minister in charge, or who’s a minister assisting in the area of the public service, writing a letter, which is highly dubious, undated, fulsome, to whom it may concern,” Mr Duckett said. 

He said the fact that Mr Hunt signed it while the government was in talks with Aspen Medical was remarkable.

“So it is extraordinarily unusual, and in fact, dangerous for a minister or in fact for a public servant, to actually have any contact, any engagement, and certainly to write a letter of this kind.” 

Aspen Medical confirmed to Four Corners it had asked Mr Hunt for the letter.

Mr Hunt’s spokesman said it was “written to support Aspen Medical in tendering for work in the United States and is appropriate for Australian firms assisting in international activity”.

In respect of the company’s PPE contracts, the minister categorically denied any involvement in any “purchasing recommendations, assessments, approvals, contract negotiations, or decisions”.

“Minister Hunt did not discuss any contractual terms with Aspen Medical or any of their agents,” his spokesman said, and described Mr Hunt’s engagement with Aspen as “minimal”.

Aspen Medical's office in Canberra.
Aspen Medical’s headquarters in Canberra were opened by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2014.(ABC Four Corners)

Like other suppliers to the National Medical Stockpile, Aspen Medical was selected without having to compete in a public tender. This was to ensure Australia was able to move quickly to secure vital supplies of PPE in what had rapidly become a fierce international contest.

The federal government’s procurement guidelines – which usually require a public tender for large contracts – were only formally suspended, however, after Aspen had begun filling federal government orders for PPE.