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Facing South

Disaster Contractors Eye Haiti for New Deals

Sue Sturgis

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, a politically-connected Florida company called AshBritt landed a no-bid multimillion U.S. government contract to remove debris in Mississippi.

But rather than performing the work itself, AshBritt hired subcontractors -- and then failed to pay some of them.

The company was sued by the subcontractors for at least $9.5 million, according to "Profiting from Disaster," a story by investigative journalist Jordan Green that appeared in the Institute for Southern Studies' 2006 report "One Year After Katrina."

The U.S. government has also acknowledged problems with AshBritt's post-Katrina performance: When the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina released its final report titled A Failure of Initiative [pdf] in February 2006, some five months after the disaster, only 18% of the $164 million the company had been paid up to that point by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had made it to Mississippi subcontractors. The company is also embroiled in a controversy over whether it overbilled a Florida school district by $765,000 for work after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, a charge the company denies.

Those troubles haven't stopped AshBritt from looking for work in earthquake-stricken Haiti, however.

It turns out that AshBritt chief Randal Perkins met with Haitian President René Préval on Jan. 28 to lobby for a cleanup contract in the hard-hit Caribbean nation. We know about it because a Miami Herald reporter chronicling a day in Préval's life also attended the meeting, reporting:

...Perkins made a hard sell, boasting of AshBritt's $900 million U.S. government contract to clean up after Hurricane Katrina and promising his firm would create 20,000 local jobs.

Perkins has never been shy about lobbying. In fact, so aggressively did he lobby Florida officials for state business during hurricane season back in 2005 that the Florida transportation secretary complained about it to then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

He's willing to bring in the big lobbying guns from outside. As we also reported in "One Year After Katrina," AshBritt's lobbying firm at the time of that disaster was Barbour Griffith and Rogers, founded by Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi since 2004. Its lobbyist at that firm was Joe Allbaugh, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President George W. Bush. AshBritt's current lobbyist is Welch Resources' Mike Parker, a former Mississippi Republican congressman who was also a top official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But of course, someone like Parker would be of little help in Haiti. So Perkins is working there with Gilbert Bigio, a wealthy and influential Haitian businessman, according to the Miami Herald.

Among the other U.S. firms also looking for contracts in Haiti are the DRC Group, a disaster recovery firm based in Mobile, Ala., and Bergeron Emergency Services, part of J.R. Bergeron's Bergeron Land Development in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

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