Parish denies FEMA allegations over Gustav cleanup

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s threat to have Livingston Parish’s Hurricane Gustav debris removal monitors investigated for fraud is “gratuitous” and “improper,” the parish’s attorneys said.

FEMA has alleged that monitors hired by the parish to oversee the removal of leaning trees and hanging limbs from parish rights-of-way were inexperienced, poorly trained and submitted fraudulent claims.

The accusations of misconduct are “unfounded” and fail to explain how FEMA’s own personnel on the ground could have missed such widespread fraud, the parish’s attorneys said in the latest motion filed in the case.

At issue is the nearly $59 million Livingston Parish is seeking from FEMA in unpaid cleanup costs stemming from the 2008 storm. The dispute is before the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals in Washington, D.C. The parish has asked for arbitration to settle the matter.

FEMA has denied $14 million of the parish’s $16.6 million in claims for the “leaner and hanger” work and all of the $44 million the parish submitted in claims for the debris cleared from the parish’s waterways.

Calling FEMA’s analysis of the parish’s claims “highly flawed and incorrect,” Livingston’s legal team at Baker Hostetler said the federal agency has relied on skewed information, gross misstatements and omissions of fact in making its case against paying the parish.

The monitors of Professional Engineering Consultants and its subcontractor, Barowka and Bonura Engineers and Consultants, were neither inexperienced nor trained to defraud FEMA, lead attorney Hilary S. Cairnie said in the parish’s motion filed Monday.

Less than 10 people trained the leaner and hanger monitors, according to the parish’s motion. Of those trainers, the primary ones had “thousands of hours logged in disaster cleanup projects” before being assigned to Livingston Parish.

That included the monitor, Stephanie Stephens, whom FEMA claimed trained another monitor only five days after being trained herself.

Stephens actually had more than 900 hours of experience working on other disaster cleanup projects before Hurricane Gustav, according to the parish’s motion.

The parish also argued FEMA’s example of a monitor bundling small cut limbs together to meet size requirements was an anomaly.

FEMA required that limbs had to be 2 inches in diameter or larger before they could be cut and accused the monitors of bundling smaller limbs together to meet that minimum requirement.

“In fact, it is PEC’s recollection that during its audit there were less than a dozen instances in 90,000 cuts of this taking place,” the parish argued in its motion. “More importantly, when PEC came across such photos in its audit, the cuts were marked ineligible.”

The parish also made short shrift of FEMA’s assertion that monitors inappropriately relied on guidance from an arborist who worked for the debris removal contractor.

FEMA suggested arborist Wendell Anthony had a conflict of interest in running crews for the debris removal contractor while also training the monitors who oversaw the work.

Anthony has denied training any of the monitors.

“Nothing cited by FEMA suggests that (the monitors’) inquiries were anything more than confirmation that the rotten trees were an issue of public safety and eligible for removal,” the parish said in its motion.

The parish also challenged FEMA’s denial of $44 million in claims for waterway debris removal, saying the work was performed under the watch not only of the parish’s monitors but also FEMA personnel.

In denying the claims, FEMA cited the parish’s failure to secure permits, obtain rights of entry and remove only storm-related debris, among other problems.

However, the parish said FEMA representatives in the field consistently praised the contractors’ work, only to have that support reversed after the work was completed.