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The Joys of Art

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

La Ti Da

I don't know but I've been told that somebody (Me wonders who this was) was hotter than a plate of steaming crawfish (on Good Friday) yesterday....Speaking of Good Friday we are going to boil 40 pounds (a 40 pound sack) of crawfish Friday....C'est Si Bon!!!!

Oh wow!!! Could that special someone be related to the article below?!!! She's a lightning rod...She just doesn't realize it yet.....Congress, FEMA, the President of the United States and the Army Corps of Engineers are taking a la ti da attitude with us Senator Landrieu!!!!!

La Ti Da--Marcia Ball

Governor Blanco when Congress finally gives us funding I'd like to see the entire state of Louisiana "LEVEEed up so that Senator Landrieu doesn't have to hurt anymore...Let's levee the President, Congress, FEMA, the Corps, and the two "Michaels" (Chertoff and "Brownie") out of the state of Louisiana.....Because I think--quite frankly--that we can do without their false solicitude....This song's for you Senator Landrieu....

The Power of Love--Marcia Ball

Senators grill corps, FEMA
Hearing details waste in relief spending
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
By James Varney
Staff writer
Testimony at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing Monday in New Orleans showed that in the matter of the Katrina cleanup, taxpayers got taken to the cleaners.

The senators are investigating the massive federal spending on relief that continues to unfold along the portions of the Gulf Coast savaged by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. In particular, Monday's hearing was focused on big-ticket items handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers -- debris removal, blue tarp roofs and temporary trailer housing -- which have already cost about $4.5 billion, testimony showed.

Although the committee's work is not finished, and the lack of answers Monday means more questions will have to be submitted in writing, its chairman, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he had no doubt the findings would show gross overspending.

"I'm certain we paid too much for debris removal; I'm certain we paid way too much for blue roofs; and I'm certain trailers cost two times as much as they should have," Coburn said, after hearing testimony from federal and state officials involved in hurricane recovery.

The testimony illuminated accounts of poor or nonexistent planning by federal agencies, of curiously lax contract oversight and of inflexibility that hampered local authorities. That picture clearly angered the four senators, including Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., who attended as subcommittee guests and who leveled pointed questions about the federal government's performance. Similarly, U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-Metairie, at the end of the hearing, accused the agencies of "not complying" with federal laws already on the books to govern emergency contracting.

Under federal watch

But the hearing also revealed in stark terms how the poor level of federal preparation and response carried more than an economic punch. As the questions from the elected officials gained momentum, it became clear that two themes especially bothered the Louisiana contingent. One was that, for all of the state's storied corruption and the defense its officials had to mount that relief money would not be squandered in Louisiana, the lion's share of waste occurred under the federal watch.

The second theme is that tens of millions of dollars were frittered away in layers of subcontractors. What Washington and the nation need to realize, the Louisiana contingent argued, is the totals bandied about as earmarked for relief are, in fact, grotesquely inflated by misspending.

"We share your frustration with costs that are much higher than they need to be because all of those dollars are wasted, and yet they're still being counted against us," Vitter said.

There were a number of ways, testimony showed, in which costs ballooned. For example, it showed that large companies, already familiar players with federal bureaucracies, who landed gigantic federal contracts in the storm's immediate aftermath, subcontracted from 70 percent to 99 percent of their work. That led to a curious and costly arrangement: overhead and profit margins for the big companies of up to 47 percent, and multiple tiers of subcontractors that sometimes stretched five or six companies deep, said Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Army's auditor general.

In addition, Fitzgerald said, auditors have found countless examples of a bizarre method of establishing prices, particularly on the four $500 million debris-removal contracts announced in September.

"Although it awarded . . . fixed-price contracts, corps contracting officials negotiated higher prices for most task orders issued under three of the four contracts," Fitzgerald said, noting that in some cases the price per cubic yard rose by $4.86 during negotiations.

Corps under fire

Even more puzzling: There is no paperwork detailing why the costs went consistently higher.

"Contract files didn't include explanations of how the government estimate was reconciled with the final agreed-to price," Fitzgerald testified.

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock with the Army Corps of Engineers agreed the documentary omission must be rectified, but while Coburn praised Strock's dedication for cutting short a vacation to appear, the senator was clearly irked by the lack of answers Strock and the others provided.

For example, Coburn said he could understand why information on defense intelligence might be a government secret, but that he failed to see why similar shrouds should be draped over hurricane recovery work.

"Is there a reason we should not have these contracts exposed to sunshine? For debris removal?" he asked.

Strock said he didn't believe that information could be shared with the American public.

"Let me tell you that's something we're going to change," Coburn snapped.

The corps came under fire in other ways, too. St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis opened his remarks by reminding the senators and Jindal, "I have to continue my dealings with the corps and FEMA." He then proceeded to depict them as near-gangsters who force local officials to let the corps handle matters even if the parish already had the issue in hand.

"At one point the corps was in my office, urging me to cancel the (debris-removal) contract and go with them," Davis said. "It was a very uncomfortable situation. I wanted my legal teams there. I finally told them, 'I think we're getting into an area that's very gray and I don't want to be there.' "

As it happened, St. Tammany's in-place contracts when Katrina hit carried prices of between $7 and $14 per cubic yard, at least 50 percent lower than prices paid by the corps, according to most estimates. Davis estimated the savings to taxpayers in St. Tammany alone at $42 million by forgoing the corps' demand to help.

Fuming at FEMA

FEMA, too, took its lumps. As Tina Burnette, the agency's deputy director of acquisition for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, testified for FEMA, the senators appeared exasperated by her inability or unwillingness to answer their questions.

In particular, the senators wanted to know why FEMA hired both the corps, which takes a percentage of the total contract in what amounts to a management fee, and then paid one of the mega-contractors to perform essentially the same role. In effect, testimony showed, FEMA built a thick layer of bureaucracy at the top that skimmed some money before the relief funds entered into the maze of layers below.

Burnette said she was intrigued by the idea. Neither she nor Strock could say what percentage the corps received on the blue roof and debris-removal tasks it handled. Spending to date on those contracts has topped $1.6 billion.

"Bechtel, CH2M Hill -- why do you need them?" Coburn asked, citing two of the multinational companies that landed prime contracts. "They go out and subcontract 99 percent of this stuff anyway. Why can't you do that?"

The senators appeared even angrier when FEMA simply blew off the second round of testimony, the one that featured local officials. A stunned Coburn stopped that portion of the hearing after a few minutes and asked whether any representative from FEMA had stayed to listen or take notes. For a moment no one spoke, and then Strock raised his hand.

"No, general, you're with the corps, not FEMA," Coburn said. "No one from FEMA stayed around to listen to this and hear what's going on? That's part of the problem right there."

And it's a problem, Landrieu stressed again, that should not be perceived as local. The rest of the nation is not immune from natural disasters and potential catastrophes, and residents there had better understand the nature of the agencies designed to help, she said.

"The country had better wake up and get FEMA fixed, and start saving the taxpayers some money," she said.

. . . . . . .

James Varney can be reached at jvarney@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3386.


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