Three days after Hurricane Katrina hit, AshBritt hired the former head of the Army Corps of Engineers, Mike Parker, specifically to help it maximize its contracts for Katrina cleanup.
Among the company's other lobbyists were a former Louisiana legislator, and Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, a lobbying firm co-founded by former chairman of the Republican National Committee and current Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour. By mid-September, AshBritt had $500 million in debris-removal contracts, plus its guaranteed $56 million contingency fee from FEMA under a preexisting retainer for natural disaster recovery. (12)
AshBritt, a Florida-based firm, has close ties with Florida governor and presidential brother Jeb Bush, and lobbied hard for a state contract in Florida in 2004. Records show that AshBritt's CEO is a major donor to state and federal GOP candidates. (13) Local debris-removal firms in Mississippi have said AshBritt's cozy relationship with Washington essentially precluded competition for Katrina contracts.
Another former FEMA director, James Lee Witt, is also now a lobbyist. His firm, James Lee Witt Associates, is Louisiana's disaster consultant. Americold Logistics of Atlanta retained Witt's firm prior to the hurricane, for which it paid $40,000 in fees. (14)
Witt arranged a meeting between Americold executives and FEMA and, a result, Americold was on retainer with FEMA even prior to the 2005 hurricane season to provide ice and cold storage facilities in case of a major storm. Its Katrina contracts totaled over $1.7 billion. Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), which investigated the contract, criticized Witt for "acting like a gatekeeper." TCS's Keith Ashdown called Witt the "king of disaster lobbying."
"The message it sends," Ashdown says, "is that if you're not willing to pay his firm a retainer, you're not going to get a FEMA contract." (15)
Americold was the contractor at the center of controversy when a truck full of ice headed for the devastated region was turned away by disorganized FEMA officials and ended up traveling 1600 miles by truck before melting, unused. (16)
CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE
Florida-based Carnival won a $236 million no-bid contract to house hurricane victims, despite the fact that the nation of Greece offered the use of ships for free. Jeb Bush pushed for the contract, according to emails made public by Congressman Henry Waxman. Bush forwarded an email from the top Carnival executive directly to FEMA chief Mike Brown. Bush claimed simply to be "facilitating" communication between the parties. (17)
The cruise ships floated half-empty for six months, and the cost per person per week for those housed on the ships (many of them public employees such as police officers) worked out to more than twice the cost of a Caribbean cruise vacation for the same period. And that's minus most of the crew, entertainment, fancy banquets and the cost of actually sailing the ships.
Carnival said the cost of canceling booked cruises contributed to the price, and that food and other services were also provided. (18) "Finding out after the fact that we're spending taxpayer money on no-bid contracts and sweetheart deals for cruise lines is no way to run a recovery effort," Senator Tom Coburn complained. (19)
Some of the contractors who have benefited from their familiarity with the powers that be say it's less about cronyism and more about expedience. Many of the contracts for cleanup and emergency services were actually negotiated long before Katrina, in anticipation of such an emergency. (Such an arrangement is known as putting a company on "active status.")
Firms like AshBritt and Americold are retained by FEMA and other federal agencies to be activated on short notice should an emergency strike (the same goes for private contractors in war zones, who often have agreements in place prior to hostilities). Negotiating when there isn't a crisis saves time and money when there is, they argue.
This might partially explain why the same names come up in Iraq and in New Orleans - AshBritt, Blackwater, Bechtel, Fluor, CH2M Hill and others - and why it is so difficult for small, local companies to get in on the action.
Halliburton is primarily an oil fields services company with extensive contracts from offshore drilling and pipeline construction. In the last five years, however, the company has seen a boom in its work with the U.S. military's "global war on terrorism" - for which is has billed over $20 billion. (68) Most of which is derived from providing logistical support for the United States military in Iraq such as cooking meals and cleaning toilets. This work is conducted by its Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) subsidiary, whose history of work for the military dates back to the Second World War. (69) The company was part of the major consortium that built U.S. military bases in Vietnam and today is the main architect for new bases from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay.
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