Committee members irked by Katrina contracting practices

Anger fueled by officials’ lack of knowledge on disaster relief policies.

Members of a panel investigating the government's response to Hurricane Katrina Wednesday accused officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers of browbeating local officials into dumping cheaper contracts and signing up the federal agencies' own higher cost contractors.

"It's a prevalent practice," Rep. Charles (Chip) Pickering, R-Miss., said at a House Select Hurricane Katrina Committee hearing.

Pickering also said the agencies were not following the Stafford Act, which requires officials to give preference to state and local companies and individuals in awarding federal contracts. As little as 5.6 percent of the Army Corps contracts and 1.9 percent of FEMA's contracts have gone to Mississippi companies, he said.

In response to the grilling by Pickering and others, the procurement officials angered the panel by repeatedly saying they were unaware of procurement policies and laws governing disaster relief contracts.

"Many of our answers are going to frustrate this committee," said Greg Rothwell, the Homeland Security Department's chief procurement officer, arguing his office does not set procurement policies.

Col. Norbert Doyle, the Army Corps' principal assistant responsible for contracting, responded that administration officials are debating the meaning of "preference."

During the exchanges over contracting practices, Pickering said the agencies threatened that state and local officials would not be fully reimbursed if they issued their own contracts.

Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., cited a FEMA policy stipulating that after a certain date, state and local officials would not receive a full reimbursement for their contracts. Rogers added that before Hurricane Katrina struck, FEMA officials were in the process of changing the policy.

"That particular policy I am not familiar with," Rothwell conceded. When Rogers asked why officials have yet to change the policy, he added, "We're not the right panelists to answer this."

Rogers responded that tweaking the policy could save "four or five billion dollars" for a debris removal contract issued in Louisiana. Local officials hired contractors to remove debris at a rate of $9 per cubic yard, but the Army Corps chose to award a contract for $17 per cubic yard.

Rogers later lambasted Doyle for not knowing how much the agency paid in contracts to patch roofs with blue plastic tarps. Lawmakers cited media reports that have suggested the government is being bilked for thousands of dollars.

"You're the principal assistant in charge of contracts . . . and you don't know the answer to that," barked Rogers.