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REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Black market prices for N95 face masks have gone through the roof.
THE PRICE IS WRONG

Undercover sting targets NYC pharmacist allegedly hoarding coronavirus masks

Justin Rohrlich
By Justin Rohrlich

Geopolitics reporter

A New York City pharmacist is under investigation for “exploiting the present Covid-19 pandemic and engaging in price gouging,” according to a search warrant application unsealed earlier this week in federal court.

In early April, says the government filing, an informant contacted Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative arm of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with a tip that the retail pharmacist, Richard Schirripa, was selling personal protective equipment, or PPE, to New Yorkers at up to 15 times the regular price.

Some weeks earlier, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had established anti-hoarding measures for various “scarce” materials during the coronavirus pandemic. The list included, among other things, medical-grade PPE such as N95 respirator masks meant for doctors, nurses, and first responders. Around the same time, the Department of Justice announced the formation of a task force that would combat hoarding and price gouging.

Since then, New York City has become the pandemic’s epicenter, with more than 6,000 coronavirus-related deaths to date. Healthcare workers in the city have struggled to source enough PPE, resorting to reusing disposable face masks and wearing garbage bags for protection. This past Friday, N95 manufacturer 3M filed a federal lawsuit against a New Jersey company it says tried to sell the masks for six times the usual amount.

On April 4, 2020, an undercover HSI agent called Schirripa and asked about buying face masks. According to the warrant application, Schirripa told the “customer” he was selling surgical-grade N95 masks for $22 each, and commercial-grade N95 masks for $15. They both typically retail for less than $1.50 apiece.

“[W]hen you have something no one else has, it’s not a high price,” Schirripa explained, adding that his masks were expensive because “you can’t get them.”

Excerpts from Schirripa’s alleged conversation

Schirripa said he had a “very large quantity” of the items, having spent “over $200,000 on masks.” His store, Madison Avenue Pharmacy, is located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side near Mt. Sinai Hospital, which Schirripa described as “a freaking war zone. It’s fucking crazy.” He told the undercover agent that if the masks were resold, he preferred they be sold without any further markup “because I don’t want any price gouging associated with this.” Schirripa claimed he was only making 10% profit on the masks, having bought them “after the gouging took place.”

During the conversation, Schirripa asked the agent if they were an essential worker. When the agent said they worked in “fintech,” the warrant application says Schirripa replied that such an occupation indeed qualified as “essential.”

The warrant application describes agents on a two-day stakeout, watching Schirripa sell his masks all over the city. He allegedly dropped off large bags filled with masks at an Italian restaurant, an assisted living home, and a competing pharmacy. Agents say they also saw Schirripa engage in transactions with two unidentified men on the street, one wearing a white doctor’s coat.

Schirripa under surveillance

The next day, the undercover agent met up with Schirripa near his pharmacy on Madison Ave. Schirripa, who joked to the agent that he felt like a drug dealer, said he had obtained the masks through a Florida supplier, who had originally gotten them on the black market.

“I don’t want anyone to see the stuff—this stuff is like gold right now, someone’s gonna break into my car,” Schirripa told the agent, who was wearing a wire.

Schirripa allegedly handed over 16 boxes of N95 masks, both commercial-grade and surgical-grade, for $2,690. The backseat and trunk of Schirripa’s car were both “packed with boxes,” the warrant application says. He asked the agent to Venmo him the money, but the dollar amount exceeded the account’s limit so they settled up later in cash.

The feds searched Schirripa’s home the morning of the transaction for further evidence; the warrant application requests access to to search his car, and the vehicle’s navigation and Bluetooth systems, for additional clues.

Schirripa—who settled a federal lawsuit in 2013 for violations of the Controlled Substances Act—could not be reached for comment.

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