WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. agency responsible for disaster response hired a contractor that failed to deliver millions of emergency meals in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico last year, U.S. Democratic lawmakers said on Tuesday.
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee cited records that showed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded a nearly $156 million contract to a one-person company that delivered just 50,000 of the expected 30 million meals.
The lawmakers said documents showed the company, Atlanta-based Tribute Contracting, had a history of problems handling smaller government contracts worth less than $100,000 and had been barred from government work until 2019.
Representatives for Tribute and its owner, Tiffany Brown, did not respond to requests for comment.
Puerto Rico is struggling to recover from its worst natural disaster in 90 years and the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history, with some $120 billion of combined bond and pension debt.
Hurricane Maria killed dozens and left Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens without power when it struck on Sept. 20, along with reducing access to clean water and other essentials. FEMA last month said it would continue to provide water, meals and other basic needs after earlier reports that it was going to halt aid.
The House committee’s announcement follows an earlier controversy involving contractor Whitefish Energy Holdings, a small Montana firm hired to restore the island’s power despite a lack of experience. Governor Ricardo Rossello later canceled that deal.
After winning the October 2017 FEMA contract, Tribute delivered just 50,000 meals to the U.S. territory and was terminated for cause 20 days later, said Representative Elijah Cummings, the committee’s top Democrat.
“It is unclear why FEMA or any agency would have proceeded with a contract worth $156 million in light of this company’s poor contracting history and these explicit warnings,” he wrote, citing documents obtained by panel Democrats.
Cummings and fellow Democrat Stacey Plaskett called on the panel’s Republican chairman, Trey Gowdy, to subpoena FEMA for documents on the company and its alleged failure to deliver millions of meals.
Gowdy’s spokeswoman Amanda Gonzalez said that sending a subpoena was premature but that the panel would continue to review hurricane recovery efforts.
FEMA said it could not comment on Tribute, but that at the time the contract was terminated food distribution in Puerto Rico “was not affected.”
Agency spokeswoman Jenny Burke said meals continue to be provided on the island and that “there are sufficient commodities both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland to continue to meet identified needs for current or future disasters.”
A website for Brown shows her other companies include beauty, fashion, interior design and health and wellness businesses.
Writing by Susan Heavey, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien