The mission statement of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is simple, Helping people before, during, and after disasters. Since its creation by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, FEMA coordinates the federal government’s role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made, including acts of terror.
To perform that mission, FEMA spends billions of dollars, much of that on disaster relief. While the big news this week is the FEMA response to homeowners, businesses and local governments hurt by Hurricane Dorian. Something else is going on, however. Bribes, shoddy work and corruption.
Yesterday a former high ranking FEMA official was indicted on charges of taking bribes from the president of a company awarded a $1.8 billion contract to repair Puerto Rico’s electric grid post Hurricane Maria.
Named in the indictment were Ahsha Nateef Tribble, a former deputy administrator sent to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island’s power grid in 2017. Also named were Donald Ellison and Jovanda Patterson. Ellison was president of Cobra Acquisitions LLC, the company awarded the $1.8 billion contract. Jovanda “JoJo” Patterson was Tribble’s deputy chief of staff.
According to the indictment, Tribble pressured both FEMA and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to steer business to Cobra Acquisitions. In return, Cobra shuttled Tribble around the island in a private helicopter and provided hotel rooms for her.
Hurricane Maria Strikes Puerto Rico
Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. It was a major category 4 storm. The winds were responsible for shutting down almost the entire power grid for the island. That grid is operated by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, a government agency. It took 11 months and over $3 billion to rebuild the grid.
1.5 million customers were without power, many for months. That makes it the longest mass power outage loss in U.S. history as well as one of the biggest. Even that storm was 2 years ago, the island’s power system is still considered weak and vulnerable.
The company that took the lead role in the electric grid rebuilding effort was Cobra Acquisitions based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Cobra became eligible for federal monies after President Trump signed an emergency declaration.
Ahsha Tribble Comes to the “Rescue”
Tribble was a regional administrator within FEMA. Her territory within the organization was New York, New Jersey, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Within a couple weeks of the storm, Tribble was sent to Puerto Rico took charge of FEMA’s response to the collapse of the island’s power grid. She had that role until September 2018.
The initial contract was for $200 million but under Tribble’s watch, the contract was amended several times and the payments increased. Although the contracts were with the Puerto Rico Power Authority, everyone knew Uncle Sam was footing the bill.
FEMA employees are not allowed to accept gifts from government contractors. According to the indictment, however, “Ahsha Tribble, being a public official… would and did corruptly demand, seek, receive and accept…” things of value from Donald Ellison.
Some of the alleged bribes was housing in Puerto Rico. Lest you think Tribble needed a place to stay while in Puerto Rico, FEMA took care of that. Ditto for her travel.
The indictment said Tribble received a private helicopter tour, assistance in procuring a place to live in New York, a hotel stay in Ft. Lauderdale, airfare from Miami to Orlando, airfare to Charlotte, a hotel stay in Charlotte and the hiring of her chief of staff JoJo Patterson by Cobra Acquisitions. The feds say that Tribble even had use Ellison’s credit card.
What did Ellison get out of this? We may never know but his company got lots. A criminal Grand Jury says Tribble arranged for “favorable treatment” of Cobra. That probably explains how Cobra’s contract was expanded in a few short months from $200 million to $1.8 billion.
How do we know? After receiving all the gifts from Ellison, Tribble issued an official letter saying Cobra’s costs were reasonable.
Prosecutors also say that Tribble used her personal email and a burner cell phone to communicate with Ellison. Another agency no-no. (Remember the uproar over Hillary Clinton’s private email server? Tribble did not seem to learn much from that incident.)
In February 2018, an explosion at a major Puerto Rico power transmission center again plunged much of the island into darkness – that is those sections of the island that had power. The utility said it could fix the problem with its own staff. Despite Cobra’s bid to fix the center being much higher, Tribble insisted the work go to Cobra.
The government believes that Tribble and Ellison were involved in an illegal bribery scheme. Under the law, taking bribes is just as illegal as paying them.
The parties were just arrested. No trial date has been set yet. We remind everyone that the indictment of Tribble, Ellison and Patterson is only a finding of probable cause by a Grand Jury. A jury will ultimately determine their guilt or innocence unless there is a plea agreement. [We suspect the government is hoping to get JoJo to cooperate.]
FEMA Fraud and Whistleblowers
This story is unusual because it involves alleged bribes by a government official. We rarely see such cases. Tribble’s claimed involvement makes this case worse than the average FEMA fraud case. It’s worse because a senior FEMA official knew of the fraud and apparently was a participant.
Disasters require immediate responses. That means the government must find vendors willing to supply food, housing, sanitation, healthcare, generators… whatever a community needs to survive after a disaster. There is no time to go through a lengthy bidding process. If people are in the streets and with no food or sanitation, they need relief within hours, not weeks or longer.
The risk, of course, is that unscrupulous contractors and vendors will take advantage of those in need. By doing so, they are also taking advantage of FEMA and taxpayers who must foot the bills for disaster relief.
FEMA has many predesignated contractors, the list of their prime contractors appears below. If you read the names, many are familiar household names. Unfortunately, many have a long track record of ripping off the government. Although companies like Northrup Grumman and Boeing have been able to settle fraud charges without admissions of wrongdoing, the fact that they are “frequent flyers” and have paid millions and millions of dollars in fines speaks volumes.
List of FEMA Prime Contractors:
- Alion Science and Technology
- AMR Office of Emergency Management
- BAE Systems Intelligence & Security
- Battelle National Biodefense Institute
- BI Incorporated
- Booz Allen Hamilton
- CACI Federal
- Capgemini Government Solutions
- CDM Smith
- Comprehensive Health Services
- Covenant Aviation Security
- Deloitte Services
- Ernst & Young
- FJC Security Services
- Fluor Government Solutions
- G4S Government Solutions
- General Dynamics
- The Geo Group
- Grant Thornton
- Grunley Construction
- The Haskell Company
- ICF International
- Ingalls Shipbuilding
- Jacobs Engineering Group
- Knight Point Systems
- Korte Construction Company
- Leo A Daly
- Lockheed Martin
- Marinette Marine
- Michael Baker Jr, Inc.
- Morpho Detection
- Northrup Grumman
- Partnership for Temporary Housing
- Serco, Inc.
- Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure
- Sirva Relocations
- Skanska USA Building
- VF Imagewear
- VSE Corporation
- World Wide Technologies
We certainly aren’t saying these companies are crooks. Nor is this list exhaustive. As noted in this story, Cobra Acquisitions isn’t even on the prime contractor list yet they managed to get $1.8 billion in tax dollars. In our opinion, they got that much money solely because of the bribes paid to a FEMA senior official.
Whether or not any bribes were involved, FEMA fraud takes place when companies rip off the agency. To see a great example, let’s go back to Hurricane Maria
FEMA Ordered 30 Million Meals, Vendor Delivered 50,000
Immediately after Hurricane Maria hit, an urgent call for help went out from the government of Puerto Rico. Without power, food was spoiling. Roads were closed and people were in danger of starving.
FEMA issued an emergency contract to a woman named Tiffany Brown and her company Tribute Contracting. Tiffany was awarded $156 million to begin delivery of 30 million hot meals. Five bucks per meal seems like a lot considering it was a bulk order but FEMA wanted immediate delivery and distribution, no small order for an island with no working infrastructure.
Tiffany got the award in large part because she promised she could deliver. Despite having five previously canceled contracts, she was the bidder who promised she could deliver. Hundreds of thousands of people stranded on Puerto Rico depended her.
There was one big problem… and it wasn’t the lack of aircraft to deliver the meals. Tribute Contracting didn’t even have a viable plan to make that many meals. Tiffany contracted the meals to a local wedding caterer.
By the time the first 18.5 million meals were due, Tiffany had only delivered 50,000 and none were self heating hot meals.
Tiffany and her company lost the contract but that didn’t help the families struggling to feed their children.
Want another example of disaster relief fraud? The American Red Cross raised over $500 million after the devastating earthquakes destroyed much of Haiti. Armed with hundreds of millions of dollars, the Red Cross boldly declared it was going to build houses for many of those now homeless and living on the streets.
According to ProPublica, they built just 6 houses. That almost $100 million per house!
What went wrong? We don’t think the agency was pocketing money or taking bribes. Like FEMA, the Red Cross often must rely on contractors and vendors after a disaster. If you think FEMA did a bad job watching over contractors after Hurricane Maria, we think the Red Cross did a worse job.
We have also heard reports of Hurricane Maria contractors with hourly or time and materials contracts charging for phantom hours and billing for materials never delivered. And we suspect this goes on after every major disaster.
While disasters bring out the best in most people, there is that small percent of society that tries to take advantage of others. Those folks are never welcome but their actions are even more troubling when they prey on those suffering from a disaster.
FEMA Fraud and Whistleblower Rewards
A Civil War era law, the federal False Claims Act, allows whistleblowers with inside information about fraud to collect cash rewards for reporting companies and individuals that misuse government funds or programs.
Whistleblowers can receive between 15% and 30% of whatever the government collects from the wrongdoers. And with triple damage provisions under the law, rewards are often in the millions.
FEMA is a common target of government contractor fraud. Despite the alleged actions of Ahsha Tribble, the men and women of FEMA are committed to responding to their fellow citizens in their hour of need. When disaster strikes, however, they are largely at the mercy of contractors and vendors to quickly respond.
That’s where whistleblowers come in. If you have knowledge – inside knowledge – of FEMA fraud, you may be entitled to a large cash reward. More importantly, by stepping forward you are helping people in need, protecting taxpayers and putting a stop to rampant fraud and greed. (While the case is being investigated, your name and involvement is typically sealed meaning secret.)
All inquiries are protected by the attorney – client privilege and kept purely confidential. We handle FEMA fraud cases nationwide.