SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) — A powerful California union that claimed to have found 39 million masks for health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus battle was duped in a elaborate scam discovered by FBI investigators, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

The Los Angeles Times reported the scam was discovered when federal agents were looking into intercepting the masks for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has seized a number of orders by clinics and hospitals under the Defense Production Act.

Last month, Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) announced it had found a distributor to provide 39 million N95 masks and would make them available to state and local governments and health care systems that are fighting the novel coronavirus outbreak.


U.S. Atty. Scott Brady of the Western District of Pennsylvania said a Pittsburgh businessman told investigators he had been working with SEIU-UHW to secure the masks and had been using WhatsApp to communicate with a broker in Australia and a supplier in Kuwait, according to the Times. Both those parties are now under federal investigation, the report said, while the union and the Pittsburgh businessman appear to be among a string of middlemen who were duped.

“There are opportunists who are looking for any victim,” Brady told the Times. No money was exchanged in the scheme, according to authorities.

A spokesman for SEIU-UHW told the Times that union officials had been trying to find equipment for members and that the union only connected the supplier to the hospitals and had no involvement after that.

“As far as we knew, he had legitimate masks and the people who were going to purchase those masks were going to fully vet it and check it out and do their due diligence,” spokesman Steve Trossman told the Times.

Trossman told the Times the union “was trying to save the lives of healthcare workers and patients,” and its officials “were proud of having made that attempt.”

Brady told the Times the arrangement was suspect because the 39 million N95 masks were purportedly coming from 3M, who had told federal investigators it manufactured only 20 million such masks last year.