FEMA'S Dis­turb­ing 30 Mil­lion Meal Fi­asco in Puerto Rico

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Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria hit, most houses, roads, elec­tric­ity and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices were de­stroyed in Puerto Rico. Most im­por­tant to deal with im­me­di­ately af­ter the dis­as­ter struck was pro­vid­ing food and wa­ter for those who lived there. FEMA took ac­tion on that by quickly is­su­ing so­lic­i­ta­tion HSFE70-17-R-MARIAMEALS for 30 mil­lion self-heating meals.

But, FEMA did not en­gage in sound pro­cure­ment prac­tices from the start. Re­sponses were due merely hours af­ter the so­lic­i­ta­tion was first is­sued on Sep 18, 2017 at 12:59 PM. Then it was amended at 4 PM and quotes were due at 7 PM the same day "and ev­ery 6 hours there­after un­til all re­quire­ments are ful­filled and/or this post is can­celled."

So, not enough time was al­lowed for re­sponses from pro­fes­sional com­pa­nies, un­less they were no­ti­fied in ad­vance or were al­ready an­tic­i­pat­ing FEMA'S needs and were ready to re­spond quickly.

The only real re­quire­ments for a con­tract award was that the com­pany be listed in the Sys­tem for Award Man­age­ment (SAM), had sup­plied their DUNS# when reg­is­ter­ing, fur­nished a photo of the pro­posed meals and made a claim to be able to per­form.

There was no re­quire­ment for ac­tual pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity, an abil­ity to fi­nance the pro­duc­tion of so many meals or a li­censed food prepa­ra­tion fa­cil­ity ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing mas­sive amounts of safe food quickly.

A con­tract for 30 mil­lion meals was awarded to Trib­ute Con­tract­ing LLC for ap­prox. $156 mil­lion be­cause it was the low­est and first re­spon­sive pro­posal. Ad­di­tional con­tracts for lower amounts were awarded to seven other com­pa­nies.

Pro­duc­ing 30 mil­lion self-heating meals is an enor­mous pro­ject, and one might think FEMA would have picked one of the many ex­pe­ri­enced large-scale dis­as­ter-re­lief food sup­pli­ers in the re­gion or tapped ex­ist­ing sup­plies. Given the ur­gency, FEMA should have se­lected a com­pany that ac­tu­ally had food in stock and could de­liver it quickly to the hungry peo­ple. FEMA did not do these things. In­stead, it se­lected Tif­fany Brown, an en­tre­pre­neur based in At­lanta who not only had zero ex­pe­ri­ence in this sort of thing but also had five pre­vi­ously can­celed gov­ern­ment con­tracts as part of her back­ground. Brown’s com­pany, Trib­ute Con­tract­ing LLC, for which she was both the owner and its only em­ployee, yet she was given a $156 mil­lion con­tract to pro­duce the meals.

The con­tract, awarded on Oc­to­ber 3, was one of the big­gest food con­tracts FEMA awarded. The terms were for the com­pany to pro­vide 30 mil­lion ready-to-eat meals, at an equiv­a­lent price of $5.10 each, by Oc­to­ber 23. That was less than three weeks af­ter the con­tract award. It would have been ob­vi­ous to any­one that the chances that Brown’s com­pany could de­liver on time were slim at best.

Clearly, Brown needed help. One might think that with­out hav­ing direct ap­pli­ca­ble ex­pe­ri­ence in do­ing this sort of thing, she would turn to some­one else who did to as­sist her in the pri­mary job of pro­duc­ing the meals. She did not. In­stead, she hired as her pri­mary part­ner a wed­ding caterer, also in At­lanta, who had a staff of 11. How­ever, she did find a Texas non-profit with ex­pe­ri­ence in de­liv­er­ing food aid both in the United States and over­seas to help once the food was pre­pared.

As one might ex­pect, the scale of pro­duc­tion the wed­ding caterer’s staff of 11 might be able to pro­duce was lim­ited. They were asked by Trib­ute to pro­duce some­thing sim­ple: freeze-dried wild mush­rooms and rice, chicken and rice and a veg­etable soup. They did, but it was still a slow un­der­tak­ing.

When the due date to de­liver the 30 mil­lion meals con­tracted for ar­rived, there were two prob­lems dis­cov­ered by FEMA in­spec­tors. The first was that the meals that had been pro­duced were be­ing packed sep­a­rately from the pouches used to heat them. This was de­spite the con­tract re­quire­ment that the food be de­liv­ered as “self-heating meals.” The second was that Trib­ute had only pro­duced 50,000 meals. That was only 0.3% of the to­tal the com­pany was sup­posed to have de­liv­ered. Still, it was re­mark­able that it had been able to pro­vide 50,000 meals in that short pe­riod of time.

When what had hap­pened was dis­cov­ered, Carolyn Ward, the FEMA con­tract­ing of­fi­cer who was re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing Trib­ute’s agree­ment, shut Trib­ute down. “Do not ship another meal. Your con­tract is ter­mi­nated,” she wrote to Brown by email on Oc­to­ber 19.

This is not the only such mess FEMA has found it­self in re­gard­ing bad con­tracts as­so­ci­ated with help re­lated to Hur­ri­cane Maria. There was also a to­tal of $30 mil­lion in con­tracts re­leased for emer­gency tarps and plas­tic sheet­ing, but the com­pany that was awarded the con­tracts never de­liv­ered the goods.

As con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors are now dis­cov­er­ing, find­ings go­ing back to the many sup­port de­liv­ery prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with 2005’s Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina sug­gest that the cur­rent-day events are very sim­i­lar to what hap­pened then. Even though nat­u­ral dis­as­ters such as hur­ri­canes and tor­na­does are reg­u­lar and some­what pre­dictable events, FEMA is of­ten painfully un­pre­pared – or de­lib­er­ately neg­li­gent.

Part of the prepa­ra­tions for dis­as­ters is the lin­ing up of sup­pli­ers for all sorts of emer­gency aid to be de­liv­ered on short no­tice when such dis­as­ters oc­cur. First, there is the re­quire­ment of stock­pil­ing cer­tain types of sup­plies (such as wa­ter, gen­er­a­tors and their as­so­ci­ated fuel, tem­po­rary shel­ters and med­i­cal sup­plies) so they are ready for de­ploy­ment the mo­ment it is safe to do so af­ter a dis­as­ter hits. Second, there is the need for the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of, pre­qual­i­fi­ca­tion for and reg­u­lar re­qual­i­fi­ca­tion of com­pa­nies that can pro­duce emer­gency food sup­plies on de­mand. Post-Ka­t­rina, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion worked to cor­rect not hav­ing such con­trac­tors avail­able. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also in­vested to make sure that such com­pa­nies were ready to re­spond.

Ac­cord­ing to those close to the sit­u­a­tion, the lack of staffing by key per­son­nel within the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has cre­ated a void of knowl­edge, sup­port and plan­ning in the emer­gency ser­vices area, which is big and in­ex­cus­able.

Trib­ute Con­tract­ing and CEO Tif­fany Brown are not tak­ing the con­tract ter­mi­na­tion lightly. For one thing, Brown can­not just sim­ply sit by, since both of her ma­jor sub­con­trac­tors for the work (Cook­ing With a Star LLC and Breedlove Foods, Inc.) have threat­ened to sue her for breach of con­tract. Cook­ing With a Star also re­port­edly has 75,000 meals pre­pared for de­liv­ery but no cus­tomer ready to re­ceive or pay for them.

Though FEMA had cited Trib­ute for not pre­par­ing self-heating meals, the ul­ti­mate rea­son the or­ga­ni­za­tion gave for ter­mi­nat­ing the con­tract was Trib­ute’s late de­liv­ery of the ap­proved meals. Brown ap­pealed the con­tract ter­mi­na­tion on De­cem­ber 22, say­ing the rea­son FEMA cut off her con­tract was be­cause the meals were packed sep­a­rately and that the agency had never spec­i­fied that the meals and the heaters had to be packed to­gether. She also said she could have fin­ished all 30 mil­lion meals by Novem­ber 7, a date that seems doubt­ful to ev­ery­one else. Brown is look­ing to set­tle the dis­pute for at least $70 mil­lion.

With Trib­ute’s past track record, how­ever, it is un­clear if Brown is in a strong po­si­tion to win her case. Her com­pany had four pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment con­tracts can­celed for fail­ure to de­liver the re­quired food prod­ucts to in­sti­tu­tions within the fed­eral prison sys­tem. The com­pany also had a con­tract ter­mi­nated with the Gov­ern­ment Pub­lish­ing Of­fice (GPO) for de­liv­er­ing 3,000 tote bags that were sup­posed to have the U.S. Marine Corps logo printed on both sides but were only printed on one side each. Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port pro­vided to Congress, the GPO’S in­spec­tor gen­eral also de­ter­mined that Trib­ute had “al­tered and sub­mit­ted a false shipping doc­u­ment and sub­con­tracted the pre­dom­i­nant pro­duc­tion func­tion on two con­tracts with­out proper au­tho­riza­tion.”

Based on the poor de­liv­ery re­sults and the doc­u­ment fal­si­fi­ca­tion, the GPO banned Trib­ute from re­ceiv­ing any con­tracts worth more than $35,000 un­til Jan­uary 2019. Un­for­tu­nately, that ban only ap­plies to the GPO and not to the gov­ern­ment in gen­eral.

What is odd is that de­spite the ban for GPO con­tracts and the other four con­tract can­cel­la­tions for food de­liv­er­ies for the fed­eral prison sys­tem, Trib­ute was still el­i­gi­ble for what was, in the end, a real “life or death” con­tract.

Though the Trib­ute meal de­liv­er­ies were missed, FEMA agency spokesman Wil­liam Booher claims that Puerto Ri­cans still had “am­ple” food and wa­ter for dis­tri­bu­tion from other sup­pli­ers at the time.

A broader con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion into why Trib­ute was awarded the con­tract in the first place – as well as into FEMA’S en­tire han­dling of dis­as­ter re­lief sup­port for Hur­ri­cane Maria vic­tims in Puerto Rico – will likely hap­pen some­time in the near fu­ture. How­ever, it may not ex­pose what could re­ally be go­ing on.

FEMA’S gross in­com­pe­tence when it comes to con­tract­ing may be de­lib­er­ate. There are many el­e­ments within fed­eral con­tract­ing who want to do away with com­pet­i­tive and trans­par­ent bid­ding and make all fed­eral con­tract­ing opaque and more like in the mil­i­tary, where tril­lions of dol­lars van­ish with­out any ac­count­abil­ity. By de­lib­er­ately sab­o­tag­ing the pub­lic pro­cure­ment process, FEMA sup­ports the agenda of the crim­i­nal el­e­ments who seek to loot even more from tax­pay­ers.

This lat­est FEMA fi­asco comes at a time when Congress is con­sid­er­ing mak­ing mas­sive changes to fed­eral pro­cure­ment law, none of which are for the bet­ter.

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