FEMA to seek investigation of Gustav work in Livingston

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it will seek an investigation into the potentially fraudulent practices of a monitoring firm Livingston Parish hired to oversee debris removal after Hurricane Gustav.

FEMA also is considering reneging on the nearly $2 million already allocated for monitoring the removal of leaning trees and hanging limbs from parish rights-of-way.

The agency outlined its position in a 192-page response to Livingston’s request for arbitration to resolve the dispute over $59 million in unpaid Gustav cleanup costs.

The case is before the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals in Washington, D.C.

FEMA’s response, filed Friday, claims monitors from Professional Engineering Consultants who oversaw the debris removal were inexperienced, poorly trained and specifically advised to document ineligible work and submit fraudulent claims.

FEMA said it plans to ask the Office of Inspector General’s Criminal Investigative and Audit Unit to look into the work done by monitors in Livingston.

Problems FEMA cited with the work on leaning trees and hanging limbs included confusing and inconsistent GPS coordinates for the cut trees, the same photographs being used as evidence for multiple claims and work done on property for which the parish was not legally responsible.

Evidence used to bolster FEMA’s arguments included affidavits from former Parish President Mike Grimmer and former contractor Corey Delahoussaye, whose C-Del Inc. the parish hired in 2009 to help resolve wetlands permit and mitigation issues that surfaced after the storm.

FEMA declined through a spokeswoman Tuesday to comment on when the affidavits were made, the nature of Grimmer’s or Delahoussaye’s involvement in the arbitration or any other aspects of the case while it is pending before the appeals board.

Daily work logs of monitors hired by Professional Engineering Consultants, of Baton Rouge, show they were being trained to cut rotten trees, which were ineligible for reimbursement, and to measure multiple limbs together to get a cut-size large enough to meet FEMA guidelines, FEMA said in its response.

The logs also show one monitor, only five days after being trained for the work, was training someone else.

According to the logs, the newly minted trainer was working on a crew run by Wendell Anthony, a parish arborist whose role FEMA has called into question.

Anthony ran about 80 percent of the crews working for debris removal contractor International Equipment Distributors, FEMA said.

The arborist also trained PEC monitors to oversee the work of those crews, the agency said.

FEMA said Anthony’s dual role posed a conflict of interest because Anthony would potentially receive reimbursement for each eligible cut his crews made.

However, Anthony said Monday that he did not train any of the monitors, despite FEMA’s assertions to the contrary. Nor did he OK the cutting of dead or rotten trees or measuring multiple limbs to get a larger cut measurement, he said.

PEC President Tony Arikol also disputed Monday the implication that a handful of mistakes were indicative of the entirety of his company’s work after the storm.

FEMA pointed in its response to a pair of “absurd” claims for reimbursement, including a tree with one or two visible hangers but 49 recorded cuts and another with perhaps one hanger and countless cuts.

What was left of the second tree “resembled a telephone pole more than a tree, without a single branch remaining,” FEMA said, asking why the contractor did not instead cut down the whole tree.

Arikol said everyone talks about the “totem pole” tree, but no one mentions that the entire crew responsible for that tree was fired.

“In a project of that size, you’re going to have screwups,” Arikol said. “But there was no conspiracy. Everybody out there was trying to do a good job.

“That’s the part that disheartens me the most, is that you had a vast majority out there working hard and now their ethics are being called into question years after the fact,” he said.

Arikol said his company’s internal review of its work showed 89 percent was eligible.

However, FEMA’s sampling confirmed only 34 percent eligibility for leaners, 16 percent for hangers.

Those are higher percentages than either the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office or the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness could confirm in their respective audits of the work.

“The reality is that the parish’s handling of the leaner and hanger debris work was fatally flawed from start to finish and did not comply with FEMA’s regulations and policies,” the agency said.

FEMA also cited problems with debris removal from the parish’s waterways, including the parish’s failure to secure permits, obtain rights of entry and remove only storm-related debris.

The agency has denied 100 percent of the parish’s $46 million in claims for that work.

Even if the parish could prove the claimed work met eligibility requirements, the contracts for debris removal and monitoring did not meet federal, state or even parish procurement guidelines, FEMA said. The contracts also exceeded allowable rates, with no maximums set.