Guest Editorial: Case shows flaws in FEMA contracting rules
No disaster is so awful that it can’t be exploited for profit.
If nothing else, you have to admire Tiffany Brown’s chutzpah. The self-described “diva, mogul, author and idealist” persuaded the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give her a $150 million contract to deliver 30 million ready-to-eat meals to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. She failed to deliver and lost the contract. Now she’s appealing and demanding $70 million.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Brown’s company, Tribute Contracting, had committed to deliver 18.3 million meals. By October, only 50,000 had been delivered. Her contract was canceled Oct. 19, a month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.
FEMA inexplicably thought that Brown, who doesn’t own a food-service company, was going to get 18.3 million meals prepared and shipped in one month. It was as if Hurricane Maria had wiped out FEMA’s common sense grid.
The three major companies that make Meals, Ready to Eat, or MREs, for the U.S. military might have been able to pull it off. But not Tiffany Brown, who scours government contracting websites then tries to find companies that can deliver, taking a broker’s fee for her trouble.
She has not been entirely successful at this. The Times reported that she had failed to deliver on five earlier government contracts. FEMA hired her anyway for a sixth try.
Even when you stipulate that three major hurricanes making landfall on U.S. territory within 26 days was an extraordinary challenge, FEMA’s performance — especially in Puerto Rico — was troubling. It should have had better plans in place for sourcing something as crucial as MREs and vetting its contractors.
FEMA, the military and private relief organizations managed to get food to most of Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million people within days. Electrical power has been the bigger problem; even today, nearly five months after Maria’s landfall, nearly a third of the island remains without power. FEMA got sandbagged on that one.
The government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was a mess long before Maria arrived Sept. 20. It demonstrated its business chops by signing a $300 million no-bid, no-accountability contract to rebuild its grid with a tiny but well-connected company in Whitefish, Mont.
FEMA, which would have had to pay for the contract, balked. With electric power as with MREs, it takes more than a gift for hustling government contracts to get a job done.
On Jan. 29, a FEMA spokesman told National Public Radio that the agency would stop supplying food and water to the island on Jan. 31. Two days later, after a major public outcry, the agency said never mind. The spokesman misspoke.
FEMA will have to summon the energy to fight Brown’s appeal of her canceled contract for a job she didn’t perform and never deserved. In this one, we like FEMA’s chances.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 13