Politics

Criticism over Gov. Scott’s post-Irma debris pickup deals stirs up political storm

Furniture carried away by Hurricane Irma’s storm surge is strewn next to the road in Cudjoe Key on Sept. 15, 2017, two days after the storm. Emergency contracts to haul away the debris were awarded by Gov. Rick Scott, despite local arrangements already in place.
Furniture carried away by Hurricane Irma’s storm surge is strewn next to the road in Cudjoe Key on Sept. 15, 2017, two days after the storm. Emergency contracts to haul away the debris were awarded by Gov. Rick Scott, despite local arrangements already in place. Getty Images

The political storm surrounding the two emergency contracts issued by Gov. Rick Scott in the Florida Keys following Hurricane Irma is gaining strength.

Expressing concern Florida will seek “reimbursement for potentially wasteful debris removal contracts,” Sen. Claire McCaskill , D-Missouri, on Tuesday demanded to know when the Federal Emergency Management Agency first learned about these agreements and how it will determine if the costs in those emergency contracts “are necessary and reasonable.”

On Wednesday, the 11 Democratic members of Congress from Florida sent their own letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General arguing “tens of millions of federal taxpayer dollars are being squandered” and requested the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conduct an audit.

“An OIG audit would go far to restore public confidence that taxpayer funds spent on disaster relief will not be allocated inappropriately or inefficiently,” the members of Congress wrote.

Democrats are hoping the controversy surrounding the emergency contracts will become an issue in the Senate race, where Scott is running to unseat Democrat Bill Nelson.

The emergency contracts were the focus of a series of stories last month by CBS4 Miami, entitled Debris Debacle. The stories detailed how Scott ignored the debris removal contracts already in place in the Keys and instead issued emergency contracts for the lucrative work of clearing fallen trees, palm fronds, as well as the remnants of destroyed homes and trailers.

One of the companies selected had no previous debris removal experience, while more qualified firms were prevented from even submitting bids.

CBS4 News reviewed more than $43 million worth of invoices submitted by Munilla Construction Management (MCM) and Community Asphalt, the two firms selected to operate in the Keys under the emergency contract.

If the governor used one of the companies already under contract with the state, it would have cost taxpayers as little as $13 million to do the same work.

The prices in the emergency contracts were believed to be the highest in the state.

For instance, to sweep curbs and gutters, MCM — which was building the FIU was bridge that subsequently collapsed — charged $913 a mile while the three firms the governor ignored would have charged far less: between $12 and $123.

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Brad Morris with Monroe County Fire Rescue trims a fallen tree from a neighborhood in Cudjoe Key. The island community took a direct hit. Gaston De Cardenas AFP/Getty Images

Since Florida is expected to ask the federal government to pay for the cleanup, McCaskill, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee, which has domain over FEMA, said she wanted more information from FEMA to make sure taxpayers weren’t being abused. In her letter to FEMA Administrator Brock Long, McCaskill posed a series of questions including: “When and how did FEMA first learn that the state was considering awarding — or had awarded — emergency contracts for debris removal in Monroe County?”

In recent months, McCaskill, a former state auditor, has been focused on FEMA’s response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. As she noted in her letter to FEMA: “I have previously raised concerns regarding FEMA’s failure to use competitively bid prepositioned contracts.”

In a statement to CBS4, McCaskill said: “I’m going to keep repeating this as many times as I have to — we need more prepositioned contracts, and we need to make sure they are executed properly. In this case you saw prepositioned contracts actually in place, but they didn’t get used and that may have left taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars — we need to find out why.”

The letter sent by the Florida Democrats to the Inspector General hit a much sharper tone in attacking Governor Scott for what they described as “price-gouging orchestrated by the governor … in an inept and possibly corrupt procurement of debris removal services following Hurricane Irma.”

A spokeswoman for Scott dismissed the their complaints.

“It’s disappointing to see Democrats care more about private vendors who lost their opportunity to profit off a disaster than they do about the families who were able to quickly return home thanks to the work of Governor Scott,” Scott campaign spokeswoman Kerri Wyland said. “It’s easy for politicians to look back after the fact and try to score political points, but Governor Scott was in charge of leading the state through the largest storm in recent history — his top focus was on the safety and recovery of our communities and he did that while protecting taxpayer dollars, not special interests.”

Democrats said they invited their fellow Republicans from Florida to sign the letter as well, but they all declined.

A spokeswoman for Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis, who is running for governor, lamented the tone of the letter. “A successful hurricane recovery effort requires cooperation at every level of government, and it’s unfortunate that Florida Democrats are now using this emergency to try and score political points,” said Elizabeth Fusick, communications director for DeSantis.

Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, whose district includes the Florida Keys, did not respond to a request for comment. CBS4 News has repeatedly asked Curbelo’s office if he agreed with the governor’s decision to issue the emergency contracts or if he would support a review by the Inspector General. No response has been provided.

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