FEMA Questioned on Contract Problems

FEMA has taken a lot of criticism for their handling of Hurricane Maria’s destruction in Puerto Rico. Now, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)– all from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs — have written a letter to FEMA’s Administrator, Brock Long, asking for an explanation of one of the contracts FEMA awarded.

In the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, McCaskill is the Ranking Member – the top Democrat. Peters is the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management. Heitkamp is the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management.

Their letter asks about a $156,000,000 contract awarded to Tribute Contracting of Atlanta, Georgia. This contract should have resulted in the delivery of 30 million meals to Puerto Rico. Instead, the contract was canceled after just 50,000 meals were distributed in 20 days.

Cause for cancellation

When the contract was canceled, Tribute had provided 50,000 of 156,000 meals due by that time. The meals were supposed to be self-heating, but the elements required to heat the meals were packaged separately from the meals themselves.

FEMA specified that failure to deliver meals on time was the reason for the termination of the contract, but Tiffany Brown, the owner of Tribute Contracting, claimed in an appeal of the contract cancellation that the self-heating failure was the main issue.

According to the New York Times, Tribute outsourced production and delivery of the meals to a wedding caterer and a nonprofit food processor. The caterer claims that another 75,000 meals were ready for distribution at the time of the cancellation.

Could FEMA have predicted the problem?

Tribute Contracting consists of just one person, who describes herself as a “broker.” She has no staff and no capacity to prepare or distribute meals. She had failed to deliver on four previous government contracts, including two which involved delivering food to prisons. Both those contracts were cancelled as a result of Tribute’s failure to deliver the contracted food.

She had also been caught delivering a “false shipping document” and her contract proposal was plagiarized from online sources. Brown herself said that the contract was simply awarded to the lowest bidder.

“This contract,” the Senators’ letter said, “appears to be further evidence of systematic weaknesses in FEMA’s contracting practices.” The letter lists another example, a contract awarded to a two-person company with no previous experience which was supposed to deliver tarps. They failed to do so.

Demands for information

The letter asks for a description of the process used to determine that Tribute would be a good choice for the contract, with special reference to several criteria required for government contracts:

  • “satisfactory performance record”
  • “adequate financial resources to perform the contract”
  • “satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics”

The authors also asked for full information on the current status of the contract, the amount of money paid to Tribute, and FEMA’s position on the plagiarism and inaccurate statements contained in Tribute Contracting’s proposal.

FEMA claimed, when the story broke, that the problems with Tribute had not affected meal deliveries at all. The letter also asks for clarification of this statement. “Please explain how FEMA made this determination,” the authors wrote. “If it is the case that FEMA had an adequate supply of emergency meals from other sources, please explain why FEMA enterred into a contract with Tribute to provide 30 million meals.”

The letter requests copies of all relevant documents. “We are concerned that without proper policies and procedures in place to evaluate prospective contractors’ capacity, we will continue to see disaster relief contracts fail unnecessarily, at the expense of both contractors and hurricane survivors,” the senators explained.

Read the letter.

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