Members of Congress are asking for more answers about FEMA's decisions after Hurricane Maria after the agency canceled multiple contracts to deliver aid to Puerto Rico when the companies were unable to deliver the meals or supplies.
The members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are specifically asking the agency to explain why it granted a contract to a small company to deliver 30 million meals to Puerto Rico.
In a letter requesting information from FEMA, the senators say that Tribute Contracting LLC, which was granted a $156 million to produce 30 million meals, plagiarized parts of its proposal for the contract and lied to the agency about its ability to fulfill the order. That contract was granted and canceled 20 days after it was granted after only 50,000 meals were delivered behind schedule.
"We are concerned that FEMA is not taking appropriate steps to evaluate vendors' qualifications before awarding contracts to provide critical disaster relief supplies," the senators wrote.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., compared the proposal to an "internet scam email" and said the company should be barred from any future federal contracts.
“I’ve conducted oversight on billions of dollars in federal contracts, but I’ve never seen something this bizarre in a contract proposal," she said in a statement. "FEMA agreed to spend over $150 million on a contract proposal that reads like an internet scam email -- and the government needs to give us answers about what it’s doing to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure hurricane survivors are getting the resources they need.”
The Tribute contract was canceled "when it became clear the vendor couldn't meet requirements," FEMA said in a statement earlier this month.
The senators say in the letter that FEMA should have seen warnings that the company would not be able to fulfill such a large order if the agency vetted the contract properly. They want FEMA to explain why those signs were missed.
FEMA said in a statement Friday it is reviewing the letter and will respond directly to the committee. A representative for Tribute did not respond to a request for comment.
The letter was signed by members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, including ranking member McCaskill and subcommittee chairs Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.
The senators want to know why FEMA did not verify information in Tribute's proposal before awarding the contract. For example, the letter says that Tribute's proposal suggested that the company would work with the logistics company C.H. Robinson to fulfill the contract. But C.H. Robinson told committee staff that Tribute only contacted them three days after the contract was awarded and that they ultimately told Tribute they would not work with them, according to the letter.
The letter says Tribute's proposal used language similar to other companies' websites and the senators say Tribute misrepresented its resources and ability to fulfill the order. For example, the proposal used language like "our logistics professionals" even though Tribute only had one registered employee, Tiffany Brown. Brown told staff on the House Oversight Committee that FEMA knew she would hire subcontractors to make and deliver the meals.
House Democrats on the Oversight Committee asked the chairman to subpoena FEMA officials earlier this month to explain why the agency granted the contract with Tribute even though the company previously failed to fulfill government contracts.
Tribute's contract is not the only one with issues in the response to Hurricane Maria. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority canceled a $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy to restore electricity to the island after a controversy about why the contract was granted to a small private company instead of a cheaper network of public utility companies. Whitefish stopped work in November after some of its contractors told the government of Puerto Rico they were owed money by the company.
The Associated Press reported that another $30 million contract to deliver emergency tarps and plastic sheeting was canceled after the materials weren't delivered.
The AP also reported that the Puerto Rico housing department suspended a $133 million contract with a company hired to repair damaged homes after a review board found that the company didn't meet several requirements for the contract. An executive from that company had been nominated by the president for a position at FEMA but withdrew from consideration.