Hurricane Maria devastated much of Puerto Rico and left tens of thousands without power, water and means to obtain basic necessities. Two Georgia companies have been implicated in botched efforts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide food to stranded residents. CAROLYN COLE / LOS ANGELES TIMES / TNS

Tiny Atlanta firm won $156M FEMA contract despite previous problem

Winning a $156 million Federal Emergency Management Agency contract was a stroke of good fortune for Atlanta entrepreneur Tiffany Brown.

Brown’s Tribute Contracting, LLC, employed no one but her. She had no experience delivering large-scale disaster aid. A federal agency stopped awarding Tribute certain contracts after a botched order for tote bags, according to members of Congress. Yet days after Hurricane Maria made landfall, FEMA put her in charge of delivering more than 30 million emergency meals to Puerto Rico.

On Tuesday, Democrats on the U.S. House Oversight Committee singled out FEMA’s contract with Tribute as a reason why tens of millions of emergency meals never made it to the island — and a sign that the agency may still be stymied by contracting problems that hindered response to Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago. Critics said in 2005 that FEMA failed to enter into standing contracts in advance of emergencies, making the agency vulnerable to fraud and waste when disaster struck.

“It is difficult to fathom how FEMA could have believed this tiny company had the capacity to perform this $156 million contract,” said a letter written by U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, and Rep. Stacey Plaskett, a delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The February 2nd, 2018 edition of Georgia Legislative Week in Review with Mark Neisse, Maya T. Prabhu and the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Brown told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she is just a small business owner struggling to do business with a federal bureaucracy. The contract fell apart because FEMA failed to pay her within 48 hours, which made it impossible to finance more deliveries, she said.

“I don’t have an ‘in’,” said Brown, who describes herself as a “A Diva, Mogul, Author” on her Twitter page. “All I am is somebody that wrote a really good proposal about a contract, wanting to help the people to Puerto Rico.”

A FEMA spokesperson said Tribute was vetted prior to the award, and that federal rules do not allow FEMA to block contractors based on prior problems with another agency.

“At the time of the contract termination there were ample commodity supplies in the pipeline, and distribution was not affected,” FEMA spokesperson Jenny Burke said. FEMA has tentatively selected Tribute as part of a group of contractors that would provide up to $10.8 million in emergency hygiene and cleaning supplies, but no payment has taken place.

Tuesday’s letter requested that House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., issue a subpoena compelling the agency to release documents on the failed meal deliveries. Committee spokesperson Amanda Gonzalez said the agency currently has no such plans.

“At no point — until today’s letter — has this concern been raised,” Gonzalez said. “While sending a subpoena to cooperating agencies is premature, we look forward to continuing our review of the preparation and recovery efforts relating to the 2017 hurricanes.”

Past problems for Tribute

Brown’s prior forays into federal contracting have repeatedly gone awry, according to the letter.

In 2013, the Federal Prison System cancelled its contract after Tribute failed to deliver $27,00 worth of beans, flour and spaghetti. One in 2014 ended over Tribute’s inability to ship bread products and cereal. A Government Publishing Office contract for 3,000 tote bags with the U.S. Marine Corps logo was terminated for “inability to produce the job per specifications,” the letter states. GPO deemed Tribute ineligible for further contracts worth more than $30,000 until January 2019.

This didn’t deter Brown, who entered the disaster relief business after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September. That’s when she spotted a solicitation for an emergency food contractor on a federal website, she said.

“They asked me if I would be able to handle it, and I said I’d be able to,” said Brown. She had a signed contract by Oct. 3.

Unused meals in Atlanta warehouse

Tribute was at least the second FEMA contractor with Georgia ties to raise controversy for its response to Hurricane Maria. LongBranch Partners, LLC, which advertised an Elijay address 80 miles north of Atlanta, drew public outrage after delivering Baby Ruths, Airheads candies, Cheez-Its and pop-top tins of barbecue flavored potted meat to storm survivors as emergency relief.

Puerto Ricans complained they could not survive on junk food, and saw the boxes as another sign that they were being treated as second-class citizens. A FEMA spokesperson said they were “snack packs” and never intended to replace a full meal.

Tribute aimed to provide more nutritious fare: Freeze-dried wild mushrooms and rice, chicken and rice, and vegetable soup, at $5.10 per meal. They were to be delivered over three weeks, at rates of as much as 3 million a day, according to a delivery schedule Brown provided the AJC.

East Point’s Cooking with a Star prepared the meals. According to its website, the caterer specializes in weddings and corporate events.

“She didn’t tell me she was a wedding caterer,” Brown said of Cooking with a Star’s owner.

Signs of trouble began before the meals were frozen. Brown said she had trouble with partnering with larger food companies because they were worried about receiving swift payment. She switched suppliers mid-stream, emails and a recording provided by Brown to the AJC show.

FEMA cancelled the contract Oct. 19 after its workers found that special heating packs were not packaged with the food.

“Do not ship another meal…Your contract is terminated,” an email from a contracts officer said.

Tribute delivered only 50,000 of the 30 million meals, according to FEMA. The agency paid $255,000.

Some 75,000 unused meals sit in an Atlanta warehouse, Brown said. She said that FEMA still owes her $367,000.

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