Actor and composer of Puerto Rican descent Lin-Manuel Miranda distributes food to victims of Hurricane Maria in November.

Actor and composer of Puerto Rican descent Lin-Manuel Miranda distributes food to victims of Hurricane Maria in November. Carlos Giusti/AP

Lawmakers Press FEMA for Documents on Canceled Meals Contract for Puerto Rico

An Atlanta entrepreneur with a history of procurement problems delivered only a fraction of the order.

With Puerto Rico still struggling to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Maria, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is under pressure to release documents to explain a since-canceled $156 million contract with a one-person company to provide 30 million meals for the island.

Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee tell Government Executive they have had no response from Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to their Feb. 6 request for a subpoena to obtain materials on why the agency hired the one-woman, minority-owned firm Tribute Contacting LLP.

The contract with Tiffany Brown, an Atlanta-based entrepreneur who owns a women’s clothing line, an entertainment company, a media service and a beverage delivery software app, was canceled after 20 days when FEMA had received only 50,000 pre-prepared meals.

“It is difficult to fathom how FEMA could have believed that this tiny company had the capacity to perform this $156 million contract,” wrote Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., in a Feb. 6 letter to Gowdy requesting a subpoena. “FEMA’s decision is even more incomprehensible given the company’s inability to fulfill previous government contracts that were only a fraction of the size.”

The lawmakers list an array of previous federal contracts with Tribute that were canceled over the past five years, including food contracts with the Federal Prison System and tote bags for the Government Publishing Office, an agency that temporarily barred Tribute from new contracts.

According to recent news reports, the contract was terminated both because her deliveries were late and because the meals came in two separate packages that had to be combined before reheating.

“It appears that the Trump administration’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico in 2017 suffered from the same flaws as the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” Cummings and Plaskett wrote. “Food is one of the most basic necessities of natural disasters. This need is completely foreseeable—and in fact it was foreseen.”

Brown told congressional staff she won the award “because I was able to submit a proposal to supply 30 million meals at the cheapest cost.” Using subcontractors, she worked “24 hours a day, 7 days a week to try and provide these emergency meals.” Her two subcontractors stopped supplying materials when they did not get promptly paid.

On her website, in addition to her work in entertainment, nonprofit management and book publishing, she said Tribute has had three FEMA contracts over a span of five years “that equals 10.8 million and 1 million sales this year alone.”

In comments this week to The New York Times, Brown described her work as that of “almost like a broker,” who does not keep employees or specialize in any field but is able to procure subcontracted work as needed. She is appealing the termination and seeking a settlement of $70 million. She said she has 75,000 undelivered meals sitting in a warehouse.

FEMA has been under pressure to release its internal decision-making documents since the story came to light in October, when FEMA officials reported major shortages of meals on the island.

In a statement released Feb. 6 and provided to Government Executive on Thursday, FEMA said, “While it would be inappropriate to comment on the pending appeal with the contractor in question, FEMA continues to provide meals to survivors in Puerto Rico. At the time of the contract termination there were ample commodity supplies in the pipeline, and distribution was not affected.”

FEMA confirmed that the vendor was paid $255,000 for 50,000 meals, a small part of the overall $2 billion worth of commodities sent to Puerto Rico. According to FEMA’s statement:

“Tribute was vetted through SAM (System for Award Management) and the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) prior to award,” it continued. “Tribute Contracting’s exclusion was for the Government Publishing Office only; FEMA and other agencies cannot exclude a vendor based on this exclusion,” it said. “When we have concerns about a contractor’s responsibility or ability to perform its contractual duties, FEMA takes the necessary steps to ensure that survivors’ needs are met and that the taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately through contractual and/or other administrative remedies.”

FEMA has continued to provide meals and water to Puerto Rico as requested. Throughout the course of the response activities FEMA, working closely with the government of Puerto Rico, continually assessed and evaluated the need for sourcing additional commodities. As recovery commenced, and needs for federal resources diminished, FEMA made similar reductions in its sourcing.

According to the Homeland Security Department website, FEMA approved more than $1 billion in grants to survivors of Hurricanes Irma and María. More than 1.1 million Puerto Rico residents have registered for FEMA assistance, it said, and the agency has provided $1.6 billion in food and $361 million in water.

In a Thursday commentary, the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight highlighted broader procurement deficiencies at Homeland Security-based agencies, based on January inspector general’s report on the department’s insufficient record of suspending and debarring flawed contractors.

“The DHS Suspension and Debarment Instruction is outdated and is missing needed definitions, as well as detailed requirements and procedures for documenting decisions on administrative agreements, which mandate improvements rather than suspending or debarring companies and organizations,” the IG wrote. “The department does not have a centralized system to track suspension and debarment activities, which may have contributed to DHS’ inaccurate FY 2016 reporting of suspensions and debarments.”

Finally, during an eight-month period (August 2016 through March 2017, before last summer’s hurricanes), FEMA did not promptly update governmentwide systems to reflect debarments and administrative agreements, a situation since corrected. DHS agreed with the report’s recommendations.

Though President Trump gave his administration an “A” grade for its response to Puerto Rico’s plight, FEMA also drew criticism for a since-canceled $300 million sole-source contract to the Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings firm to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid. POGO commented that it is “encouraged that the department is increasing its usage of suspension and debarment, and that it is making improvements where necessary.”

And in December, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member on the Homeland Security panel, wrote a letter to then-Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke questioning a FEMA Request for Information offering a $100 million sole-source award for resource capability and transportation support. Thompson had been calling for improvements in oversight of FEMA’s procurement practices since at least 2011.

On Thursday, Thompson sent a letter similar to Cummings’ to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.