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KATRINA: FEMA Scrutinizes Debris Removal Company


by Michael KunzelmanAssociated Press
June 7th, 2006

A company suspected of overbilling for the removal of Hurricane Katrina-damaged trees charged excessive fees for similar work after a storm eight years ago, according to a federal audit.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is examining a "multitude of discrepancies" in bills that TCB Construction Co. and another company submitted to Harrison County for tree removal, according to an internal FEMA report reviewed by The Associated Press.

After Hurricane Georges in 1998, FEMA refused to reimburse the county for around $1.7 million of the $2 million it paid TCB Construction for removing thousands of tree stumps, FEMA said.

An audit by the federal inspector general's office found TCB Construction billed the county for extracting stumps that homeowners had removed themselves and left at the curb for disposal. The audit concluded the company should have been paid $33.60 per stump instead of the $150 to $325 it received.

The county board of supervisors decided to hire TCB again after Katrina because it submitted the lowest bid and board members were satisfied with TCB's work after Georges, said county Supervisor Larry Benefield.

Since Katrina, Harrison County has not been reimbursed for about half of its $18 million worth of tree removal work, Benefield said.

FEMA concluded that contractors billed the county for hundreds of trees that were not eligible for federal reimbursement. Many were too small, FEMA said. Also, inspectors could not find stumps to match hundreds of trees workers said they cut.

FEMA also said the county used a noncompetitive bid process to award the contracts. Instead of soliciting bids publicly, it said, a county employee contacted six companies by telephone and two of them submitted bids.

Jennifer Fagan, president of TCB Construction, said the company "did the work we were contracted to do" after both Georges and Katrina. She said all the company's work after Katrina was directed and checked by another firm.

Campaign finance reports show TCB Construction donated a total of $2,000 to Benefield's campaigns dating back to 1999.

He acknowledged the company's owners are friends and political supporters but said the board's unanimous vote to award them the post-Katrina contract was based on a recommendation by the county's chief engineer.






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