CHARLESTON — Desperate for respirator masks to protect first responders on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight, West Virginia officials turned to a Boone County native.

It all started with Perry “The Punisher” Ballard, sole proprietor of Ballard Safety LLC and former super middleweight champion of the World Boxing Foundation, an organization whose bouts frequently take place in gymnasiums and hotel banquet halls.

Another Boone native and self-described lifelong friend of Ballard’s, Steve Pauley, was also in on the deal. He is the CEO of Downstream Recycling, located outside Charleston, South Carolina.

One of two Houston connections on the supply chain was Mingyi Li, 32, operator of Eastern 7 Enterprise LLC. He is currently under indictment in a separate felony case in Houston, where he is accused of engaging in organized criminal activity.

Authorities say Li and others stole four large trucks and seven containers filled with plastic resin.

Eastern 7 is among six companies West Virginia’s public safety secretary listed in a 10-page report April 16 as being involved in the sale of 100,000 respirator masks to the state.

At least half those masks were counterfeit, equipped with ear loops and falsely marked as approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), according to the agency’s parent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When local emergency officials raised concerns about the masks in April, state public safety Secretary Jeff Sandy said in his report that the masks were “genuine … and not counterfeits.” He maintains that stance.

Documents the state Department of Homeland Security provided in response to questions for this story refute that assertion. Those records from the CDC state that ear-loop masks are described as counterfeit by their ostensible manufacturer, Shanghai Dasheng Health Products Manufacture Co. Ltd., based in China. That is the company state officials said supplied West Virginia.

At roughly the same time Sandy issued his report to first responders, other states were recalling tens of thousands of masks also found to be counterfeit and purchased from China.

Sandy said he based his assurances on his personal investigation of the matter, which, among other things, resulted in his obtaining a proof of purchase letter provided by Ya Qi Technology Co. and translated by Diana C. Hsiung, a Houston lawyer. The letter stated: “On March 24, 2020, Eastern 7 Enterprises LLC acquired from (Ya Qi Technology Company) 100,000 Dasheng brand N95 masks, said acquired masks composed of two different models, DTC3X and DTC3B. DTC3B contains rear band, DTC3X contains ear loops, hereby clarify the same!”

Dasheng’s website describes the DTC3X model as being made with headbands, not ear loops.

Texas corporation records list Eastern 7 as located at 7625 Parkhurst Drive in Houston, which is the address cited in charging records as Li’s warehouse. A witness in the case told investigators much of the recyclable plastic that flows in and out of Li’s warehouse is bought with cash and usually stolen.

Houston police raided the warehouse in January 2018 in response to a man’s call saying he tracked his stolen trucks to the site. Police later charged Li and two others with stealing more than $600,000 in trucks and polyethylene resin.

Diana Hsiung is the sister of Jason Hsiung, the president of USCH International, the other Houston company Sandy listed in his report as being involved in the state’s masks purchase. USCH is located in the same building as Diana Hsiung’s law firm, according to filings with the Texas secretary of state.

Texas records show Jason Hsiung operates a separate corporation in another building a couple blocks away. His Facebook page depicts him alongside a Ferrari and Lamborghini.

West Virginia public safety officials responded to a series of questions about the players in the deal with the same answer: “(Our) point of contact during the acquisition was Ballard. The other entities involved were identified during the subsequent inquiry as explained in the April 16 memo from Secretary Sandy to first responders.”

The state paid Ballard nearly $1.2 million to secure 200,000 NIOSH-approved respirators, half acquired in the second order that included the ear-loop masks cited in Sandy’s report to first responders.

On the same day West Virginia bought masks from Ballard, Fastenal Co., an already-approved statewide vendor, asked officials how many N95 masks they needed.

West Virginia since has purchased 400,000 N95 respirators through Fastenal, according to a state Department of Health and Human Resources official.

First contact

No one answered the door at Ballard’s Berkeley County home when a reporter visited there. Neighbors said they saw him rarely and knew little about him, spare his reputation as a boxer.

He helped bring one of the World Safety Organization’s international events to Charleston in 2018. He was named the group’s occupational safety person of the year in 2017 and 2018 and is the organization’s vice president. The group claims thousands of members.

His boxing career spanned 18 years, during which Ballard compiled a record of 26-2-1, mostly fighting opponents with losing records. He held various titles, winning his last in a 2014 bout against a foe with a 26-31 record at Memorial Field House in Logan, West Virginia.

Ballard’s highest-profile encounter was one he lost: He lasted seven rounds with the late Hector “Macho” Camacho, a legend of the sport, before falling by technical knockout in 2008 at Reliant Arena in Houston. Camacho, 46 at the time, died four years later.

State records and inquiries with officials and others involved in the deal shed little light on how an obscure pugilist wound up playing the lead in the masks deal.

Ballard’s lawyer, Wendle Cook of Boone County, directed HD Media to send all correspondence to him. Cook noted Ballard’s past philanthropy in the state, especially in his home county.

Roughly three months after the purchase of the masks, accounts differ on who initiated Ballard’s involvement.

Sandy said Ballard reached out to him. Cook said Del. Rodney Miller, D-Boone, called Ballard and advised Sandy would follow up.

“He said the first responders are in dire need of personal protection equipment and he needed some help,” Cook said. “He wanted Perry to use his contacts to see if he could locate people who could deliver the personal protective equipment, and said a guy by the name of Jeff Sandy would be calling him, which Sandy called; Perry called him back. That’s how the whole thing got started.”

Miller said Ballard reached out to him first, and he gave Ballard contact information for Sandy.

“The call that I had gotten was from Perry saying that if the state was in need, he might be able to have some connections, if you will, of some folks that might be able to help. He was offering help … he didn’t want to see the state in a bind,” Miller said.

Advised of Miller’s remarks, Cook said he could not comment further because he represents Miller in other matters.

Records show Ballard and Sandy first made contact March 19, three days after Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency.

“Thank you for taking the time talking with me,” Ballard wrote Sandy at 10 a.m. that day. “I have contacted my clients and contacts around the world and only get several hits with success.”

At 1 p.m., Sandy wrote that his office was set to purchase 28,000 N95s, and a request to buy 72,000 more was just sent to the Governor’s Office.

At 4 p.m., during the governor’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Justice announced the state had just purchased 100,000 N95s.

Sandy said on May 5, the day after HD Media reported the counterfeit masks purchase, that Ballard was vetted and had supplied safety equipment for law enforcement in the state “for decades.” Department spokesman Lawrence Messina later clarified that Ballard doesn’t supply safety equipment but is a consultant.

“He’s a safety manager, OK?” Cook said. “He inspects and makes recommendations, so he doesn’t actually buy the masks. He just recommends (to) the companies that they need them, and then the companies purchase the masks pursuant to his directions. He’s not a retailer.”

For 10 days following the announcement of the masks purchase, Ballard, Sandy and others exchanged emails amid the effort to locate and secure the devices. The first batch arrived March 23.

A batch that arrived in Charleston the following day was short of the 10,000 ordered, and the masks came packed in plastic outside the boxes in which they were supposed to be shipped. Sandy asked for answers in an afternoon email. Ballard replied moments later.

“I am sorry for the short order,” he wrote. “I will inquire. Continue to count as they come in.”

Tracking the sale

Pauley, Ballard’s friend, left West Virginia 25 years ago, landing in South Carolina, where he now operates Downstream Recycling.

Pictures on his social media accounts feature him with the likes of NFL quarterback Tom Brady, comedian and fellow West Virginia native Steve Harvey, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay and former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.

Ballard contacted Downstream Recycling and USCH “for help procuring masks in light of our company’s general business contacts with China, where masks were potentially available,” Pauley said.

On April 10, a West Virginia fire chief raised concerns about the masks’ authenticity. Sandy and Ballard then spoke over the phone before Ballard emailed Pauley and Jason Hsiung of USCH requesting confirmation the masks were indeed authentic.

Pauley replied that Hsiung would be contacting the manufacturer.

Starting at 1 a.m. April 12, Sandy said, he began tracing the purchase through Ballard’s contacts, which were not known until the investigation took place.

Sandy relied on Diana Hsiung to provide proof of purchase orders. Ya Qi claims in those records to be a distributor for Dasheng.

While Ya Qi is one of six businesses West Virginia used as middlemen in its masks purchase, Dasheng’s website prominently displays this warning pop-up on its home page:

“WE DON’T HAVE ANY DISTRIBUTORS, DEALERS OR BRANCH FACTORIES. BEWARE OF COUNTERFEIT!”

Diana Hsiung wrote that Ya Qi used the term distributor “loosely” as the company is actually a “vendee” of Dasheng. She blamed the error on flawed translation.

On the purchase order from Eastern 7 to USCH, “Roy” is listed as the salesman for a 10 million-piece order. Sandy said May 5 that the masks in question were part of this order.

Mingyi Li uses “Roy” as an alias, according to his indictment.

Diana Hsiung responded neither to emailed questions nor to repeated phone calls. Jason Hsiung also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

An attorney representing Li in his felony case did not respond to requests for comment.

Fit troubles

The rub with the ear-loop masks purchased by West Virginia is in their labeling and fit, according to Christina Baxter, a former U.S. Department of Defense official and chairwoman of the National Fire Protection Agency’s chemical protective clothing committee.

All NIOSH-approved N95 respirators from Dasheng are made with headbands. Ear-loop masks labeled NIOSH-approved are counterfeit, she said. That assertion is backed by the CDC.

Sandy said in his memo to first responders that ear-loop masks the state purchased were actually KN95s, a less protective version of what’s known as an N95 mask that was not permitted for use in the United States until the COVID-19 pandemic. KN95s should only be used as last resort equipment, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Masks with ear loops provide a less-secure fit than those with headbands, making wearers vulnerable to exposure. That’s a particular concern for first responders more likely than others to come into contact with sick people, including those who’ve contracted the virus.

Ear-loop masks marked as NIOSH-approved N95 devices imply they provide a level of protection they do not.

The NIOSH N95 label “has a legal meaning,” Baxter explained. “They do not meet the NIOSH N95 definition — because they’re not approved by NIOSH — which means that they are a counterfeit product.”

Sandy’s memo cites the issue of fit, urging wearers to ensure proper fitting before use. But that won’t ensure the level of protection a NIOSH-approved device provides.

NIOSH requires N95s to have a four-point head harness, or headband, Baxter said. Otherwise, parts of the face can be left exposed.

“With a four-point head harness, you get a much tighter fit against your face, whereas with an ear-loop design, you tend to have a lack of fit up toward the cheeks, just away from the nose and down around the chin, and you’ll also have some lack of fit in between right at the ear level,” Baxter explained. “So you just can’t generally get a good fit.”

Sean Thorn, threat preparedness coordinator at the Grafton-Taylor County Health Department, said masks with a poor fit can lead to what is known as “schnoz nose,” referring to the nose being exposed.

“We see that a lot in convenience stores and fast food restaurants,” he said by phone.

Issues with fit make screening ear-loop masks difficult. The first step is identifying filtration capacity, or a mask’s ability to block particulates. The next task is where ear-loop masks become problematic.

“Step two is still the fit test to human subjects,” Baxter said, “and this is where they don’t pass because we have not had ear loops that actually pass that type of test, which is why we have a four-point harness required in the NIOSH standards,” Baxter said.

Sandy told first responders that poor fit would lead to an unacceptable efficiency level — but the efficiency level never would change, regardless of how a respirator fits.

“So, we can compare filtration effects, which is just looking at the material level,” Baxter said. “The design level is the second phase of the testing, and that’s where this one fails.”

For paramedics responding to possible COVID-19-positive patients, the N95 is unmatched in its ability to filter out nearly all particulates while still providing a tight seal, said Mike Thomas, the safety director for Jan-Care, the largest EMS provider in the state.

Jan-Care mandated N95s for all paramedics and patients, regardless of whether they were suspected positive, from the beginning of the pandemic, Thomas said.

“As far as EMS,” Thomas said, “first responding goes to COVID-19. The N95s are the standard and were from the beginning, which is why there was the complete necessity for them, and just nobody had any,” Thomas said.

Dealing in China

Small manufacturers and suppliers in China responded.

Though they had little or no experience in supplying personal protection gear, operators began converting warehouses into mass mask-producing factories.

Because the certification process for protective equipment is lengthy, as for any manufactured good, some smaller businesses may skirt the process entirely, said Ednilson Bernardes, a global supply chain management professor at West Virginia University.

“If you’re producing a toy,” he said, “it doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to ship it immediately, because these things take a little time; you have to now certify the process, certify the product, and doing it very quickly might not produce the quality or the results that you want.”

As of June 1, U.S. Customs and Border Protections had seized more than 750,000 counterfeit face masks in 86 incidents, according to a news release.

A state or company doing business with China without its own or a contracted representative in the country to work the transaction poses risks, Bernardes said. Being there allows for the assurance that quality of product is acceptable and that the company itself actually exists.

“There are a lot of complicated factors that require you to have versed intermediaries,” Bernardes said. “They will take care of the translation; they will take care of the differences in specifications, which is very important, including for PPE, the way that we classify items.”

Two companies based in China along with the two based in Houston were part of West Virginia’s masks purchase.

As questions arose, state officials turned to a single translator — Diana Hsiung, the sister of the USCH principal. Neither her word nor that of Eastern 7 as she translated it has been disputed by West Virginia public safety officials.

The CDC’s assertions about ear-loop masks marked as NIOSH-approved are equally steadfast: The agency says such devices are counterfeit.

On the front lines

Two West Virginia hospitals — Charleston Area Medical Center and J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital — received ear-loop masks from the state.

CAMC staff did not use the masks when caring for COVID-19 patients, an official said. Instead, the devices were used as surgical mask substitutes for staff, patients and visitors.

Ruby Memorial did not advise staff of the masks’ limitations until after HD Media reported the problem May 4 — a month after the masks were distributed.

West Virginia University Medicine directed its staff not to use the masks when assisting a COVID-19-positive patient or a patient undergoing an aerosolization procedure, according to an internal memo obtained by HD Media.

CPR is just one example of many aerosolization procedures, a WVU Medicine official said.

Nine-thousand ear-loop masks were distributed at state prisons, jails, community corrections and juvenile services, Messina said.

Of 40,000 distributed to firefighters, police departments and emergency services crews, where the masks ended up was a mix.

Some longtime county emergency managers, such as 18-year veteran Duane Hamilton of the Preston County Office of Emergency Management, immediately opted to keep the masks out of front-line use.

Other emergency managers, such as Lincoln County’s Allen Holder, relied on Sandy’s assurances and only pulled the masks from use after reading HD Media’s report.

“I looked at them and I was suspicious of them from the beginning,” Holder told HD Media last month, “but we were assured by the state and Mr. Sandy that they were legitimate.”

In Ohio County, health department Administrator Howard Gamble said officials pulled the masks from use by the county sheriff’s department and Wheeling police and fire departments.

Marion, Randolph, Taylor and Tucker county health officials said they never let the masks go to front-line responders.

In Marshall County, health department Administrator Tom Cook said while the ear-loop masks there haven’t left the building, they are marked as N95s, so “as far as my opinion, they’re all N95 masks.”

Some officials, such as West Virginia Emergency Management Council President and Wyoming County Office of Emergency Services Director Dean Meadows, said the masks were better than nothing.

“Please realize that Secretary Sandy did not have to do this. Because of his concern for our agencies, he went above and beyond his duties to secure these masks,” Meadows wrote. “Most agencies kept the masks and used them because at the time they were all they had, but at the same time each agency was well informed of the discrepancies concerning them.”

The top official at the association representing West Virginia’s firefighters, comprising more than 300 member departments, disagreed.

“As first responders on the front line, it is not our job to certify personal protective equipment,” the association’s president, Jerry Loudin, said in a statement. “We don’t have the expertise to qualify certified personal protection equipment provided to our members, so we have to rely on the state of West Virginia and federal agencies, and trust that what’s provided is safe for our use. It is a serious concern of our association that we would be put in this precarious situation.

“By trusting the equipment to protect them, our members may have unknowingly placed themselves in situations that put them at further risk.”

Sandy, meanwhile, stands by his assertion that the masks were authentic.

Reach Joe Severino at joe.severino@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jj_severino on Twitter.