FEMA 'Blessed' Christie's Decision To Award No-Bid Contract, AshBritt Head Says
By Mel Fabrikant Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 11:48 AM EDT
Jarrett Renshaw // The Star-Ledger
TRENTON — The head of the debris removal firm that handled the bulk of the clean up work after Sandy said today that the top lawyer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency "blessed" Gov. Christie's decision to award his firm a no-bid contract.
The comments came when Randal Perkins, the CEO of Florida-based AshBritt Inc. was defending himself against questions from Democrats about whether the no-bid contract and the firm's generous rates will eventually jeopardize federal reimbursements.
"The checkbook was at the table, and blessed it," Perkins said, referring to FEMA as the principal funding source. "Without question, FEMA will determine the rates were reasonable."
Perkins added later that FEMA's chief counsel, Brad Kieserman, had advised stakeholders that the contract "was suitable, was acceptable and was reasonable."
However, FEMA officials gave a conflicting account today and said that neither Kieserman nor the agency's administrator, Craig Fugate, had "approved" the New Jersey contract.
“Neither the administrator nor the chief counsel of FEMA are familiar with the details concerning a New Jersey contract with AshBritt nor has either of them provided any approval of the contract on behalf of the agency," said Lars Anderson, FEMA's director of public affairs.
A half-hour later, Anderson added: “The governor of New Jersey and his staff have been in touch with FEMA regarding the AshBritt contract and FEMA is aware of and reviewing the circumstances of the procurement. However, neither the administrator nor the chief counsel ‘approve’ contracts entered into by state or local governments.”
After Anderson's first response was related to Perkins at the committee hearing, the AshBritt CEO disputed it.
"The public affairs person can say what he wants," Perkins said. "I will be happy to come back to this committee meeting with Craig Fugate" and Kieserman.
The first legislative hearing on AshBritt's contract has been at times combative, particularly when state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the leading Democratic candidate for governor, has grilled Perkins.
She used her time to criticize Christie for not having a contract in place before the storm, as well as raising questions about whether the firm's generous rates will jeopardize reimbursements.
"It appears the governor gave a no-bid contract to a politically-connected firm that has charged double the rates," Buono said.
At times, the Republicans on the joint legislative committee cried foul and accused Buono of politicizing the hearing.
"Is this a campaign rally?," state Sen. Joe Kyrillos asked.
Perkins said the firm used the state contract to secure agreements with 51 local governments, hauling about 3 million cubic yards of debris and billing about $150 million.
Hours before the hearing, Christie released a detailed defense of his decision to award the firm a no-bid contract in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
In two separate news releases, the governor’s press office argued that Christie acted swiftly to help the state recover from the most devastating storm in its history.
Christie selected AshBritt, a national firm that has worked in 30 federally-declared major disasters across 11 states since 1992, including hauling away 21 million cubic yards of debris in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina — it hauled away about 3 million cubic yards in New Jersey.
"From the earliest days following the storm, the Christie Administration oversaw a swift and efficient clean-up effort, with over 8 million cubic yards of debris removed from communities across New Jersey within the first 100 days of Sandy making landfall," Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said.
"Taking emergency action to provide local governments an immediate contracting option to begin debris removal operations was an important first step in the immediate recovery process."