When it comes to government investigations, this isn't the first time at the dance for AshBritt Environmental, one of the nation's largest disaster cleanup companies and certainly the largest in Florida under contract to clean up after Irma. AshBritt has seen its share of negative headlines since the company's first storm cleanup in 1992.
The Deerfield Beach-based company has made billions of dollars by persuading states to sign lucrative "disaster recovery" deals that allow it unequaled access to local officials in a crisis. Along the way, the company has forged strong relationships with politicians, including former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Haley Barbour of Mississippi.
AshBritt is one of three haulers subpoenaed by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Bondi wants answers to questions about the slow progress and pricing practices of AshBritt, Ceres Environmental Services and DRC Emergency Services.
So do residents, public officials and the beleaguered business communities in many South Florida counties, particularly hard-hit Collier County, which took a direct hit as the storm roared ashore as a Category 5. State Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, says his constituents are at their wit's end with AshBritt's bait-and-switch tactics.
Having signed a 200-page debris hauling contract with AshBritt at a fixed rate of $8 a cubic yard, the hauler now says Collier will have to pay more than the contracted rate to get better service. Otherwise, residents can expect to put up with the debris along their streets even longer.
Collier doesn't have longer. Its "season" is here.
"Two hundred thousand cubic yards of debris had been removed from our streets as of two days ago," Rommel told me last week. "We have 4.2 million cubic yards of the stuff in our county. Simple math will tell you, at this rate it's going to take 4-6 months to get everything out of here. And that's unacceptable." (As of Monday, Oct. 9, that figure has risen to 340,000 cubic yards collected.)
Four-to-six months means Collier businesses will suffer through the 2017-2018 tourist season. "Who wants to be down here with ugly and possibly dangerous debris piled up along the roads? Social media will be full of comments and photos," Rommel said.
With a pre-event contract to collect debris, that wasn't supposed to happen.
AshBritt President Randy Perkins, 53, has said Collier's storm debris will be collected. And at the agreed-to price. Just at a slower pace. But, if Collier would agree to pay more, AshBritt would put more trucks on the job.
Rommel is steamed. "What's the value of having a contract if you're not going to honor it?" he asks.
It's a fair question. Obviously, it's not about having enough vehicles to do the job. If AshBritt didn't have access to more trucks, it wouldn't be able to make a deal with the highest bidder.
The fact is, nothing of significance has changed since 2006, when Perkins was forced to defend his Katrina cleanup practices before a congressional committee and a report written for the committee looking into waste in government agencies after the storm concluded that the federal government needs to get a firm grip on "the contracting failures both before and after the storm ..."
Now FEMA, instead of contracting with debris haulers itself, allows individual municipalities to find and pay their own contractors. FEMA will reimburse the cost based on the agreed contract price. But if a contractor wants more money to do the same work, there's no guarantee cities or counties will get the difference back. And if they do, there's no telling when.
"AshBritt wants us to pay more money to speed up collection," said Rommel. "But if we do, we're taking a big chance; we're putting taxpayers on the hook for money they shouldn't have to pay anyway.
"If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to make sure this company is held accountable."
AshBritt made news as early as a month after Katrina -- and most of it was negative. Generally, it centered around the $568 million in contracts AshBritt was paid that topped the federal government's list of hurricane-related costs for debris removal.
Congressional investigators pointed to the political connections of AshBritt, a client of the former lobbying firm of Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. That, they say -- political connections -- is where the company's magic lies. (Barbour, incidentally, described as "one of Washington's all-time mega-lobbyists," was also a former chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and considered instrumental in the controversial no-bid contract New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gave AshBritt to clean up after Hurricane Sandy.)
Take a moment to watch the 2006 Katrina-aftermath video on this page. When pressed, Perkins admits to U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, D-Miss. that AshBritt's only piece of equipment is the jet it flies between Florida and Jackson, Miss. It has no dump trucks nor did it collect a single piece of debris. While AshBritt, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' hauler of choice, made a $100 million profit at $17 a cubic yard in one community, the local hauler who did the actual work made $9 a cubic yard.
Perkins and AshBritt are featured large in the August 2006 report for the congressional committee, detailing fraud, waste, and abuse in post-Katrina contracts. Here is an excerpt:
"Perkins said his company was paying a subcontractor on average just $10 of the $23 his company was collecting per cubic yard. One Louisiana debris hauler reported that he was being paid between $6 and $10 per cubic yard of debris. Indeed, this debris hauler appears to have done well even to collect $6 to $10, as the $10 per cubic yard that AshBritt paid was just one of five or more layers of contracting that in some cases left haulers being paid just $3 per cubic yard. In one example, the $23 per cubic yard that the government paid to AshBritt paid for four levels of subcontractors. AshBritt hired a company called C&B Enterprises for $9 per cubic yard, which hired Amlee Transportation for $8 per cubic yard, which hired Chris Hessler Inc, for $7 per cubic yard, which hired a debris hauler from New Jersey to do the actual work for $3 per cubic yard."
Neither Perkins nor any spokesperson from AshBritt returned numerous calls last week.
But, when confronted with allegations of overcharging and mismanaged contracts during Katrina, Perkins told Treasure Coast Newspapers last year his company would be prohibited from bidding on federal contracts anymore if any agencies found it had committed wrongdoing. "These prices were deemed reasonable by the Corps of Engineers when they selected our company," Perkins told the newspaper.
Certainly, neither those prices nor Perkins' tactics are deemed reasonable in 2017; they were soundly thumped by the investigating congressional committee in 2006.
The Sun-Sentinel reported Pompano Beach was the first city in Broward to pay more to AshBritt. It wound up with 40 trucks hauling debris Sept. 15, four days after Irma blew through the state. Lauderdale Lakes, meanwhile, which didn't agree to pay more, had to wait until Oct. 4 -- and even then, the city saw only two trucks.
In September State Rep. Robert Asencio, D-Miami, wrote to Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, urging him to expedite debris cleanup. "These massive piles are a haven for disease-carrying vermin, which can easily infect children, the elderly and family pets. Furthermore, decaying food, toxic fluids and sharp metals sticking out of the mounds further heighten the health risk ..."
Gimenez then wrote a letter to President Trump asking for "a higher federal cost share to cover clean up and recovery efforts, and I respectfully request an increase from a 75 percent to a 100 percent federal cost share for Public Assistance Category A."
"If it was up to me," said Rommel, "a company that agreed to a contract like this but didn't have the ability to live up to it would never do business in Florida again."
This story was updated at 6:33 p.m. with the corrected Collier County debris collected figure. Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith
READ MORE FROM SUNSHINE STATE NEWS