Homeland Security Investigators to Monitor Katrina Contracts, Democrats Call for Independent Commission

AP News reports that a “team of investigators” are being sent to “Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast to follow the money — namely, billions of dollars in relief aid the federal government is pouring into the region without normal contracting safeguards.”

This should be good news to those worried about who’s getting the contracts to clean-up and rebuild the Gulf Coast. But it’s not good news. No, it’s more of the same old, same old… the Fox is watching the Hens, once again. Par for the course for the Bush administration, as we have seen over and over again. Here’s why we need to be concerned:

The 30 Homeland Security Department investigators and auditors are part of what officials call an unprecedented effort to ensure federal funds are properly distributed in a rescue, relief and rebuilding process expected to exceed $100 billion.

The team is being dispatched to monitor government contractors’ work in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi as critics call the spending deluge a disaster in waiting if not properly controlled.

The message has gone out very clearly to everybody that we’re going to be efficient, we’re going to cut through red tape, but we’re not going to cut though the laws,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday.

Reading between the lines… We’re going to award more contracts to Bush cronies. We’ve made certain that the contracts already given to the Bush corporate whores, can’t be investigated… so now, we’ll cut through the “red tape” and see to it that they get more.

Some contracts, including five with emergency housing and construction companies, were awarded hurriedly without undergoing normal competitive bidding processes.

Among the most controversial Katrina awards is one that the Homeland Security team cannot investigate: a $16.6 million contract with Kellogg, Brown & Root Services Inc. of Arlington, Va., for emergency repairs at Gulf Coast naval and Marine facilities. The money is part of a $500 million Navy contract that KBR won by competitive bid last July.

Because the Pentagon awarded the KBR contract, Homeland Security has no authority to audit it. But KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., has been at the center of scrutiny for receiving a five-year, no-bid contract to restore Iraqi oil fields shortly before the war began in 2003. Vice President Dick Cheney headed Halliburton from 1995 to 2000, and Democrats have questioned whether the company has gotten favorable treatment because of his connection.

Democratic Leaders are not convinced that the team of “investigators” sent to the Gulf Coast can be trusted…

Congress is rightly spending billions of dollars to help the people and businesses of the Gulf Coast who have been devastated by Hurricane Katrina,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said. Over the weekend she called for an independent commission to oversee relief contracts “to ensure taxpayers’ money goes to those in need, not to fraudulent contractors.”

In an email just received from Henry Waxman’s GRMO: “Democratic Leaders Ask GAO to Oversee Gulf Coast Reconstruction.”

Rep. Waxman, Democratic Leader Pelosi, and other senior Democrats request that GAO Comptroller General David M. Walker immediately establish a team of experienced auditors and investigators to monitor in real time the contracts and spending for the recovery, relief, and reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. To avoid the waste, fraud, and abuse that have plagued Iraq reconstruction and homeland security spending, the members request that GAO report evidence of wasteful spending, abuse, and poor contract management as it occurs so that Congress can intervene.

Here are few quips from the letter sent to Comptroller General David M. Walker:

The history of this Administration’s handling of federal contracts is one of persistent and costly mismanagement. Under this Administration, the value of no-bid contracts has skyrocketed. Oversight of federal contracts has been turned over to private companies with blatant conflicts of interest. And when government auditors and whistleblowers do flag abuses, their recommendations are often ignored.

In Iraq, billions have been appropriated for the reconstruction effort, yet oil and electricity production remain below prewar levels. Waste, fraud, and abuse appear to have squandered hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. The contracting strategy adopted by the Administration suppressed competition on thousands of reconstruction projects, while favored companies like Halliburton received special treatment and lucrative monopoly contracts.

Domestically, the record is no better. The FBI spent $170 million on a “Virtual Case File” system that does not work. The Department of Homeland Security has spent another $200 million on a border-monitoring system of cameras and sensors that reportedly doesn’t work. And the contract to hire federal airport screeners has been plagued by poor management and flagrant abuses.

Already there are danger signs involving the contracts for recovery and rebuilding of the devastated Gulf Coast. Last week, the Administration signed two $100 million contracts with the Shaw Group, a client of former FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh, to assist in recovery efforts. Halliburton, which has repeatedly overcharged the taxpayer in Iraq, has already received contracts for repair work at three Navy facilities in Mississippi. And the emergency relief bill passed last week allows federal officials to make purchases worth up to $250,000 per transaction on government-issued credit cards. The entire letter can be read here.

Clearly it’s time to take the fox out of the hen house. We’ve seen all too many times what accountability means to the Bush administration: diddly squat.

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