The inside story of how NYC schools spent $90 million on air purifiers that have stirred controversy

The inside story of how NYC schools spent $90 million on air purifiers that have stirred controversy




The company that sold tens of thousands of air purifiers for use in New York City public school classrooms since the start of the pandemic — despite concerns among parents, teachers, and ventilation experts about their efficacy — used a high-powered lobbying firm to target key members of city government.

New documents obtained by Gothamist show just how close some of those relationships were.

The Intellipure air purifiers sold to the Department of Education by the Manhattan-based company Delos Living have stirred controversy within school communities because the devices do not use HEPA filters, which are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect against the indoor spread of COVID-19.

However, the education department has referred to the devices in the past as “HEPA purifiers” in its messaging to parents, educators, and the press. Documents obtained by Gothamist show Delos also referred to them as HEPA purifiers in its internal communications with the education department, although the company was clear that the air purifiers do not use HEPA filters. As Gothamist reported last year, the purifiers also have lower air flow rates than other similarly priced models, meaning they don’t ventilate and physically clean the air as much as others.

The education department said it has bought over 160,000 of the air purifiers since the summer of 2020. Public records show the city has spent roughly $60 million on contracts with Delos Living since 2020, not including an additional $27 million contract recently signed by the city.

Filings with the city clerk over that same period show the company has paid $375,000 to a well-connected lobbying firm called Kasirer that has targeted a wide range of city officials on Delos Living’s behalf. Those listed include senior members of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, Schools Chancellor David Banks and his two most recent predecessors, and current Mayor Eric Adams, while he was stilll Brooklyn borough president.

But the ties to city government went even deeper: Email and text-message records recently obtained by Gothamist reveal that one of Kasirer’s top lobbyists was in direct contact with City Hall on behalf of Delos — while her husband was a senior adviser on de Blasio’s COVID-19 response team.

New York City’s conflicts of interest law prohibits city employees from using their positions to benefit spouses or other people associated with them.

None of the redacted records obtained by Gothamist indicate that the mayor’s adviser was involved in the contract, and Delos said it was unaware of the relationship at the time. However, put together, the documents illustrate a lobbying effort that was extensive, cozy with those in power, and happening at a time when de Blasio had suspended the city’s normal procurement procedures.

Gothamist filed freedom of information requests with the mayor’s office and the education department in August and September 2021. Officials did not respond with records until 11 months later, after an attorney representing Gothamist notified the city that the news organization planned to file a lawsuit for failing to comply with state freedom of information law.

The resulting documents are heavily redacted, and the mayor’s office also withheld records related to the requests.

Milena Schatzle, a records officer with the education department, notified Gothamist that Delos Living had been allowed to review some of the documents and propose redactions.

Several insiders familiar with how the Delos contract was awarded, who spoke with Gothamist but did not want to be named out of fear of negative repercussions for their careers, described the early months of the pandemic as a chaotic time in city government when it came to procurement, with a flood of companies and individuals promising technological breakthroughs for fighting COVID-19.

James Fuller, a spokesperson for Delos Living, said Kasirer’s interactions with City Hall on behalf of the company “were conducted at all times in full compliance with New York City and New York state lobbying regulations and requirements.”

De Blasio did not respond to interview requests made through a spokesperson. In response to questions from Gothamist, Kasirer said it followed all city and state lobbying laws and reporting requirements.

“Kasirer adheres to the highest professional standards, and at no time and in no instances did any current or former Kasirer employee have conversations inconsistent with the aforementioned standard with any representatives of the de Blasio administration.”

Delos Living said its air purifiers — which use a proprietary filtering system that, in part, relies on static electricity to scrub particles from the air — exceed the performance of devices that use HEPA filters. But Gothamist found that the Intellipure Compact purifiers purchased by the education department produce half of the minimum clean air delivery rate of 325 cubic feet per minute that the CDC and the EPA recommend, and only when the Intellipure devices are at their highest setting.

Some principals and teachers have said publicly that school staff have largely kept the air purifiers in their classrooms on low because of the noise they create — or have stopped using them altogether.

Yet earlier this month, Banks, the schools chancellor, pushed through a new $27 million emergency contract with Delos Living to replace the filters required for schools’ Intellipure air purifiers to operate – a move that allowed the education department to proceed with the contract without first having the approval of the Panel for Educational Policy, also known as the PEP, a governing board that is supposed to review contracts before the department adopts them.

Banks used a similar tactic in pushing through an overall education budget in June that contained hundreds of millions of dollars in school funding cuts – a plan that is now being fought over in the courts.

At the panel’s August monthly meeting, parents, educators, and some panel members expressed anger and concern over the city’s decision to implement a new contract with Delos — during a time when teachers are losing their jobs and as some principals warn of larger class sizes and reductions in enrichment programs as a result of the budget cuts.

“That money, I mean when money is very scarce … could be used more wisely,” said Lupe Hernandez, a parent who also attended the meeting. “So I really encourage the chancellor and the PEP to really consider how these funds are being used.”

A chaotic time for city contracts

De Blasio’s executive order in March 2020 suspending the city’s usual procurement regulations sped up the purchasing process, said several people with knowledge of the city government’s pandemic dealings. But they said that also made it difficult without oversight measures in place to distinguish between which companies were offering genuine solutions to the city’s problems.

“We would get, like, all of these emails from councilmembers, like, you know, my cousin has a truck, or knows this guy. Really bizarre emails,” said one person familiar with how City Hall was operating then, but who did not want to be identified in speaking about internal matters. “But you forward them on because you’re not the expert.”

Delos Living’s initial sales pitch offering its Intellipure air purifiers as a solution for reopening schools came in June 2020. Email records show that the company was quickly introduced to top decision-makers in New York City’s government, thanks in large part to the work of its well-connected lobbying firm.

Kasirer is one of New York City’s top lobbying shops, rising up the ranks shortly after it was founded in the 1990s by Suri Kasirer, whose husband Bruce Teitelbaum was then a top aide to Mayor Rudy Giuliani. She’s often described in the media as a woman who can make things happen in city government, or at least knows the people who can. In 1999, Giuliani banned her from directly lobbying his administration after several deals she was involved in with the city came under intense scrutiny in the press. More recently, records obtained by Gothamist show that she met with Adams’ Chief of Staff Frank Carone shortly after Adams took office in January.

One person familiar with the firm, who spoke with Gothamist but did not want to be named out of fear of retaliation, said its strategy is for staff members to contact everyone they know in every office and agency on behalf of a client and see how far they can get.

In that initial sales pitch, Julie Greenberg, an executive vice president at Kasirer who spent years working in state government, wrote to a senior adviser to the schools chancellor.

“In light of developing plans for reopening schools this fall and the unmatched efficacy of Delos’ air purification systems, we’d love to connect them with your team,” Greenberg wrote in an email. “Could we set up a call with you and the DOE leadership team overseeing facilities and reopening efforts?”

Delos Living is led by Paul and Peter Scialla, twin brothers who both departed the upper echelons at Goldman Sachs nearly a decade ago to focus on the business. According to its website, Delos is a “global wellness leader” that “helps transform indoor environments into vehicles for health.”

The company is seemingly surrounded by the rich and famous, and its promotional material includes a star-studded cast.

A Delos subsidiary — which provides its own certification process for property owners and others who want to classify their buildings as “spaces that enhance human health and well-being” — aired a Super Bowl ad directed by Spike Lee last year featuring Robert DeNiro, Lady Gaga, and Michael B. Jordan, among other celebrities. Delos Living also lists Dr. Deepak Chopra, former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, and Leonardo DiCaprio among the members of its advisory board.

Email records show the company’s purifiers sales pitch was passed onto the New York City education department’s head of school facilities, John Shea, and that within weeks, Kasirer had helped schedule calls between the company and senior staff at the education department and City Hall.

Shea would ultimately help negotiate a contract and delivery schedule with the company, emails show, and he later appeared in a panel discussion sponsored by Delos Living about school safety measures and Delos’ products with the company’s founder, Paul Scialla.

For those less familiar with the public procurement process, the documents offer insight into how Delos Living landed contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money during the pandemic.

They also show how the lobbying firm remained in close contact with multiple other agencies while closing the deal for the company, including – text records reveal – direct communication with Lisette Camilo, then-commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. DCAS is responsible for, among other things, the purchase of hundreds of millions of dollars in goods and services for use by other city agencies, such as the education department.

Camilo, who is now the MTA’s chief administrative officer, declined to comment.

Education officials have said they considered 30 different devices before selecting Delos in 2020, but it’s unclear exactly how they vetted the company and the efficacy of its air purifiers. The mayor’s office, the education department, and other agencies redacted nearly all of the internal email discussions between staff about the devices that were obtained by Gothamist.

Those familiar with the Delos contract said the education department sought the advice of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before making the purchase.

“They sent back this sort of legalistic response,” said one person who viewed the health department’s evaluation at the time. “Not an endorsement, but basically like, ‘We have no reason to believe this wouldn’t work.’”

The health department said it could not provide comment for this story.

According to multiple people familiar with the Delos contract, one pivotal factor in procurement decisions early in the pandemic was whether a company could provide enough of whatever product the city needed in a short amount of time. The New York City school system comprises approximately 1,300 school buildings, each with dozens of classrooms. Many of the emails obtained by Gothamist between Delos Living and city officials are focused on the number of units the company could deliver quickly.

“Every decision was primarily driven by supply,” said one person familiar with the contract. “It was very hard to get things. And even when things seemed to be available, there were shipping issues and stuff like that. So especially when you’re trying to equip schools, you get what you can within the time constraint. I can’t tell you there were a ton of options.”

Gothamist sent a list of questions to the education department about how Delos was selected as a vendor. Nathaniel Styer, the education press secretary, forwarded the questions to Delos Living’s representatives and instead issued a statement that was critical of Gothamist’s reporting on the issue.

“Our sole mission was to get tens of thousands of high-quality air purifiers into schools so that we could safely open the largest school district in the nation during a national emergency. This story postulates an alternate reality that does not exist – to suggest otherwise is irresponsible, inaccurate, and is a disservice to our hardworking facilities team, who moved mountains to prepare our schools to safely educate any student who wanted in-person instruction in the fall of 2020,” Styer said.

Married to the mayor’s office

Records obtained by Gothamist also show that Kara Hughes, a senior vice president at Kasirer who was married to a senior adviser on de Blasio’s COVID-19 response team, was in direct contact with a top-level staff member at City Hall in finalizing Delos Living’s initial purchase order in August 2020, and in other lobbying efforts for the company.

Hughes had previously served as de Blasio’s acting director of city legislative affairs. By the time Delos had been selected as a vendor, her husband Peter Kauffman was in charge of running day-to-day operations in the mayor’s office for several months, according to de Blasio’s announcement of Kauffman’s appointment earlier that year.

Public servants are advised to recuse themselves when their official duties overlap with a family member’s business with the city, though there are no official disclosure requirements for employees related to lobbyists.

None of the redacted documents obtained by Gothamist show that Kauffman took part in any discussions related to the Delos contract. Multiple people involved in the deal who spoke with Gothamist but did not want to be named said, to the best of their knowledge, that Kauffman had primarily worked on de Blasio’s public messaging around the COVID-19 crisis and was not involved in procurement decisions.

The mayor’s office withheld some documents related to Gothamist’s freedom of information request that specifically asked for all of Kauffman’s emails related to Delos Living and Kasirer. The records access officer, Jeffrey Lowell, did not specify why the records had not been released.

Hughes did not respond to several requests for an interview.

Gothamist requested email records of all City Hall employees, including Kauffman, related to Delos Living and Kasirer. The handful of Kauffman’s emails that were released by the mayor’s office are heavily redacted, but they show he was included in discussions in 2021 between then-Mayor de Blasio; Meisha Porter, who was schools chancellor at the time; and members of the City Hall press team over a Gothamist article about school ventilation published in August of last year that included detailed reporting on the concerns being raised over Delos Living’s air purifiers.

At that time, the city continued to make additional purchases from the company.

The city’s Conflict of Interest Board said it could not comment on the past conduct of public servants. Gothamist has filed a lawsuit against the city in an effort to obtain the withheld documents. Both Delos and Kasirer said the firm’s lobbying work for the company was in full compliance with state and local regulations and requirements.

Records released by the Department of Education may also provide insight into why city officials have described Delos Living’s products as “HEPA purifiers” when the devices do not use HEPA filters, which are recommended by the CDC.

“Every classroom across New York City has been provided with two HEPA purifiers,” said the education department’s web page outlining its COVID-19 safety protocols in the lead-up to the start of school last August.

Both Delos and the education department said their use of the term HEPA is in reference to a standard by which HEPA filters operate at 99.997% efficiency – a benchmark that Delos claims the Intellipure air purifiers exceed.

But that’s not the only standard for HEPA filters. Dr. William Bahnfleth, an architectural engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University and chair of the Epidemic Task Force at the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, an organization that publishes standards for ventilation systems, said using the term HEPA to describe air purifiers that do not use HEPA filters is not the norm.

“It’s certainly not consistent with rating or certification procedures,” Bahnfleth said. “I think that manufacturers are using recognizable terms that suggest high performance to persuade those who are not experts, and that’s what concerns me.”

Emails between the company and education officials show that, while Delos Living was clear with the education department about the fact that its purifiers do not use HEPA filters, the company also referred to them as “HEPA air purifiers” in communication with department staff.

On July 8, 2021, Isaac Mulvilhill, a senior vice president at Delos, wrote in response to a short list of questions sent by the education department that included a query about how the company’s devices compared to those that use HEPA filters.

It’s unclear where the questions originated and for whom the answers were intended. The education department did not answer a question from Gothamist about who had submitted them, but email records show Mulvihill had fielded questions from concerned parents before – at two schools on the Upper West Side that share the same building.

In response, Mulvihill wrote “Please note, these devices are HEPA air purifiers.”

On the same day, records show that Mulvihill’s message was sent to Styer, then the department’s first deputy press secretary.

Weeks later, Styer responded to questions from a reporter at the education news organization Chalkbeat, who was then working on a story about the air purifiers.

“There are some either intentional or unintentional misunderstandings going on here,” Styer wrote to Chalkbeat in August 2021. “We look forward to welcoming all our students and staff back in September, with fully operational ventilation systems and two HEPA purifiers in each classroom.”

Styer went on to refer to the Delos’ units as “HEPA purifiers” in two separate instances in the same email. But by the time classes had resumed the following month, the education department had removed its reference to the units as “HEPA purifiers” from its website, according to a record of the page on the Internet Archive.

Styer did not respond to a question about whether Mulvihill’s response influenced how he and the department as a whole communicated to parents and the press about the air purifiers used in schools.

“Delos has never made a representation that the devices contain HEPA filters,” said Fuller, Delos’ spokesperson, in a written statement. “The email in question was a communication between two audiences that were fully aware that describing an air purifier as a “HEPA device” means that the HEPA benchmark for filtration set by U.S. regulators has been met or exceeded on the device in its entirety, not the filter alone.”



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