puerto rico hurricane maria roads 1
The drive that shows how badly Puerto Rico was hit
01:04 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The company that failed to deliver nearly all of the hot meals it promised to Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria plagiarized the bid that won it the $156 million contract from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to a letter penned by three senators this week.

Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Gary Peters of Michigan say that Tribute Contracting LLC – which lost its contract in October after just 20 days because it had delivered only 50,000 of the 30 million meals promised – lifted paragraphs from two other companies related to logistics and delivery. The senators sent the letter through their spots on the Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, on which McCaskill is the top Democrat.

According to the letter dated Thursday to FEMA administrator Brock Long, Tribute had no experience in delivery contracts of this scale, and a history of canceled federal contracts that were smaller than the one in Puerto Rico. The senators also accuse Tribute of lying about its relationship with a logistics company.

“Unfortunately, this contract seems to be further evidence of systematic weakness in FEMA’s contracting process,” the letter says, citing another government contract that was canceled for failure to deliver emergency tarps in November. “FEMA’s decision to award a $156 million contract to Tribute underscores this concern, and raises additional questions about FEMA’s contract award process.”

The senators are asking FEMA to provide answers by March 15 about how Tribute won this contract, and how the company was vetted.

“I have no idea why this contract was ever awarded, but FEMA should move immediately to bar this company from ever getting another federal dollar,” McCaskill said.

When asked to respond to the plagiarism accusations, in a written statement to CNN, Tiffany Brown, the owner of Tribute Contracting LLC told CNN, “The language in the Delivery Plan was used in previous FEMA Blanket Purchase Agreements for Hygiene Kits for Homeless Shelters. It is not industry standard to cite all sales language in a proposal, but I will do so in the future.”

“Troublingly, FEMA does not appear to have verified many of the representations made in Tribute’s proposal,” the senators’ letter states. “We are concerned that without proper policies and procedures in place to evaluate prospective contractors’ capacity, we will see disaster relief fail unnecessarily at the expense of both taxpayers and hurricane survivors.”

FEMA Communications Director William Booher says FEMA received the letter from the committee Thursday and is currently reviewing its contents. FEMA would not directly answer CNN’s questions about plagiarism but said the agency is currently working to address the senators’ questions regarding the issue.

“I’ve conducted oversight on billions of dollars in federal contracts, but I’ve never seen something this bizarre in a contract proposal,” McCaskill said. “FEMA agreed to spend over $150 million on a contract proposal that reads like an internet scam email—and the government needs to give us answers about what it’s doing to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure hurricane survivors are getting the resources they need.”

In February, CNN reported that Tribute owner Brown said she had past “challenges with government contracts” because of “financial resources, and lack of support.” She blamed her failure to deliver the hot meals on FEMA’s inability to pay her in time.

Her company is registered as a one-employee company with an annual revenue of $1,000 on the government’s Federal Procurement Data System, but Brown said that is out of date.

Brown denied that she was awarded the contract through any “hookups” with FEMA.

“I got it because I had a very good proposal and understanding of what was needed,” she told CNN.

According to the government research website InsideGov, Tribute Contracting has worked on 21 government contracts worth $1.27 million between fiscal years 2007 and 2016.

Expressing frustration, Brown, in a statement Friday, says she is asking the senators to stop using Tribute Contracting “as a way to address concerns with FEMA.”

She added, “The issue with FEMA is not how they choose their vendors; it is their inability to provide support while in the contracts.” She declined to comment further, saying her company is in litigation with the federal government.

Similar concerns about how FEMA vetted Tribute were raised in February by Congressman Elijah Cummings and Stacey Plaskett, the congressional delegate from the US Virgin Islands. They asked the House Oversight Committee to investigate.

Last year, in the weeks after Hurricane Maria, another controversial contract was awarded and later cancelled by Puerto Rico’s power authority, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). A little-known energy firm called Whitefish Energy, based in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, made headlines for winning the $300 million contract to help restore the island’s electrical power. That remains under investigation.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that the Whitefish Energy contract was awarded and later canceled by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.