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Watchdog Questions FEMA Hurricane Relief Contracting

This June 2018 photo shows an aerial view of the Viequez neighborhood, east of San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Nine months after Hurricane Maria, blue plastic tarps still protected thousands of homes.

This June 2018 photo shows an aerial view of the Viequez neighborhood, east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nine months after Hurricane Maria, blue plastic tarps still protected thousands of homes. AP Photo

 

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But the federal agency that has come under recent scrutiny for handling of contracts rejects Inspector General recommendations.

More indicators of shaky contracting practices at the Federal Emergency Management Agency became public this week when an inspector faulted the agency's handling of two contracts for procuring tarpaulins and plastic sheeting to aid victims of Hurricane Maria’s 2017 devastation of Puerto Rico.

In hurrying to award the supply work to the Bronze Star LLC company, procurement staff used Google rather than the verified firms on FEMA's Disaster Response Registry, said the May 7 report from the Homeland Security Department inspector general, which the agency challenged.

“FEMA did not fully determine Bronze Star’s or its supplier’s compliance with the contracts’ terms because it did not verify that Bronze Star could meet either contract’s delivery schedule,” said the report signed by acting IG John Kelly. The agency “also did not perform steps necessary to determine whether Bronze Star’s supplier could provide the necessary roof coverings within contractually specified timelines; performed inaccurate technical reviews of the Bronze Star proposals; used incorrect Federal Acquisition Regulation clauses; and did not reissue the original solicitations because FEMA personnel believed that a five-hour response window for the tarp modification was sufficient, and the plastic sheeting solicitation had already closed.” 

Finally, FEMA “did not consult the Disaster Response Registry, as required, because it lacked guidance and procedures.” As a result, “FEMA potentially wasted invaluable time and resources because they overlooked the registry’s readily available information on contractors.”

Bronze Star could not meet the requirements of either contract, auditors concluded. “This delayed delivery of crucial supplies, and impeded Puerto Rican residents’ efforts to protect their homes and prevent further damage. FEMA’s errors within both solicitations may have prevented other potential qualified contractors from submitting bid proposals.”

The report comes just as the House and Senate are wrestling to agree on a $14-$19 billion supplemental aid package for hurricane-damaged areas including Puerto Rico. And it also comes soon after the Government Accountability Office criticized FEMA’s contracting practices.

Contracting officer consultation with the Disaster Response Registry is required under the FAR, the IG noted. “Procurement personnel said they did not know the registry or the requirement to use the registry existed.” The agency also wasted personnel resources by issuing, canceling, and reissuing contracts to deal with the unprecedented damage. The contracting team mistakenly allowed the winning bidder to comply only loosely with Buy America requirements, and—with time constraints a factor following the huge storm—allowed Bronze Star and a company called Oil Housing Management Services too much leeway in the delivery schedule, said the report addressed to acting FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor.

"FEMA must be meticulous in its approach when developing solicitations, conducting technical reviews, and determining the award of contracts to qualified and responsive contractors and suppliers,” the IG concluded.

The report recommended that FEMA require contractors to supply verifiable information on their capability claims in their proposals and that the agency broaden lessons learned from the Bronze Star experience to improve general compliance with the FAR.

FEMA sharply disagreed. Joel Doolin, associate administrator in FEMA’s Office of Policy and Program Analysis, wrote that requiring contractors to supply verifiable information is not practicable and is not required by the FAR. He added that broader reforms, such as requiring after-action reports, are already being addressed under the agency’s continuous improvement program.

Charles S. Clark is a Senior Correspondent at Government Executive

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