Audit: N.J. acted properly in cleanup of Sandy debris

Posted: March 09, 2014

Federal auditors have found that the Christie administration complied with state and federal standards in issuing a no-bid contract to a Florida firm tasked with cleaning up debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

In the interest of speed, New Jersey awarded a six-month contract to AshBritt Inc. two days after Sandy made landfall to clean up the hundreds of thousands of tons of debris at the Shore.

Democrats held hearings on the subject last year, attacking Gov. Christie for hiring a politically connected firm that they suggested was overcharging for its work.

"This is what happens when you let the facts come to light in a thorough and complete way without a rush to judgment," a Christie spokesman said in a news release.

"At the time, many Democrats [with members of the media] jumped on this AshBritt news as some sort of breaking scandal. Led by some of the same partisan Democrats that are attempting to politicize various issues today, a feeding frenzy ensued. Now, with the release of this independent third-party report from the [inspector general], we learn that the partisans were wrong."

The state contract with AshBritt used language similar to a long-standing pact the company had with Connecticut, even though the federal agency that reimburses state and local governments after disasters discourages such "piggybacking."

After it won the New Jersey contract, AshBritt hired the Washington lobbying firm of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour - a friend of Christie's - to try to win contracts in municipalities. AshBritt was the lead contractor cleaning up the Mississippi coastline after Hurricane Katrina.

In a report dated Feb. 27, the Office of Inspector General for the federal Department of Homeland Security said: "New Jersey complied with applicable federal and state procurement standards when procuring emergency contracts for statewide debris removal and monitoring activities related to Hurricane Sandy."

The governor's office provided a copy of the report to The Inquirer on Friday. The auditor noted that Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines say states can issue no-bid contracts for "short-term debris removal" during public emergencies.

The report said state officials compared AshBritt's prices to those paid by other states for debris removal in response to other disasters and determined they were fair.

The state provided local governments the option of contracting with AshBritt because many did not have contracts for debris removal.

Though the report found that municipal use of the contract during the 60-day emergency time period identified by FEMA was permissible, it said local governments would need to use a competitive bidding process beyond that time frame. The auditor said FEMA should determine whether municipalities were eligible for reimbursements on a case-by-case basis.

Noting that costs might not be fully reimbursed, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) issued a statement saying that although companies like AshBritt "continue to reap the benefits of the storm, middle-class families in New Jersey continue to bear the burden."


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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