Senators demand probe of FEMA awards to inexperienced bidders after Hurricane Maria

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Two U.S. senators called Wednesday for an investigation into FEMA’s awarding of multimillion-dollar contracts to companies with “little to no experience” doing the work required in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The senators were reacting to reporting by McClatchy on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s contracting process in the wake of the Sept. 20, 2017, storm that devastated the U.S. territory in the Caribbean.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released a letter Wednesday that highlighted contracts awarded to a Puerto Rican truck-parts supplier called La Casa del Camionero, which McClatchy reported last month has been awarded more than $40 million despite having never done any work for FEMA before and lacking direct expertise in the work being contracted out by the agency.

“The issue here is that FEMA continues to award contracts to companies who have little to no experience, and in doing so, at the very least raises questions about its process for vetting its suppliers,” Blumenthal and Warren wrote in the letter to Acting Homeland Security Inspector General John Kelly. FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

McClatchy reported in September that FEMA had awarded numerous contracts to inexperienced contractors.. La Casa del Camionero was one such example.

The truck parts supplier was awarded a $24.7 million contract in January to store and deliver thousands of gallons diesel fuel daily. The company had only months before gotten its first federal contract and, in total, had been awarded less than $50,000 in contracts overall by other government agencies. FEMA would go on to grant more than $40 million overall in contracts for fuel storage and delivery.

In September, FEMA exercised an option in the earlier contract and awarded an extension until mid-December. It provided La Casa del Camionero another $7.26 million for its fuel storage and supply efforts.

It was unclear from Puerto Rico’s corporate registry who actually owns the company. There are no new changes of ownership or management listed, but two corporate resolutions for La Casa del Camionero from the time of the contract award appear in the corporate registry as blank documents. In that time frame, the name of the woman who appeared to own or manage the company, Sandra Rodriguez, was removed and a man’s name, Fernando Soto, added. Federal government spending databases continue to list the contract as being made to a woman-owned business, a group that receives preference in federal contracting..

Congress and its watchdog arm, the General Accountability Office, are expected to look closely into contracts given in advance of storms to pre-position relief and into some high-profile missteps detailed in the reporting by McClatchy and other news organizations.

In fact, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., on Wednesday announced that a FEMA audit proposal he offered in April had just become law. Maloney’s measure requires FEMA to audit the $30 million award to Florida-based Bronze Star LLC, a first-time bidder that failed to supply 500,000 tarps and 60,000 rolls of plastic sheeting in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

“This audit should be part of a comprehensive look at what the administration did wrong. We can’t ever let this happen again,” Maloney said in a statement announcing the provision’s becoming law.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall

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Ben Wieder: 202-383-6125, @Benbwieder