Acadiana Business

Appeal turns up heat on FEMA

by Leslie Turk

Livingston Parish officials' harsh criticisms could cause serious problems for the federal agency.

Damning allegations involving outright lies, gross ineptitude and shady decision-making included in a FEMA appeal by Livingston Parish officials is reverberating on the national, state and local levels.

FEMA refused to pay the parish $46 million for waterway debris removal after Hurricane Gustav, due largely to one company and its dozens of subcontractors. Should FEMA refuse to reverse its original decision, it's unknown where the money might come from to pay International Equipment Distributors, or IED. "Livingston Parish doesn't have the money," says Shelby Easterly III, the Denham Springs attorney who filed the appeal on behalf of the parish.

There's a great deal at stake, which is probably why the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness sent a letter in support of the original appeal in 2011.

Since then, Easterly has filed additions and supplements that accuse FEMA officials of bungling GPS coordinates, causing them to be miles away from the stream or creek they were supposed to be reviewing. It also cites thousands of pages of public documents and transcripts, obtained by ABiz, suggesting the decision to reject the payment was made prior to any denial case being built, leaving federal officials scrambling for justification when crunch time came.

Moreover, the appeal paints a scenario where the feds, shortly after the 2008 storm, approved debris work for the parish where flooding was a "threat," even sending monitors to view the ongoing work, only to later call the same work ineligible.
On the Hill, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, has been lobbying FEMA's upper brass to investigate its Louisiana Recovery Office for what he says is "very serious and apparently well-documented accusations of wrongdoing."

Although local officials speculate an answer to the appeal could come in 60 to 90 days, others say FEMA could take even longer to decide. Meanwhile, FEMA public affairs specialist Bob Alvey says that they have "no visibility on when a determination will be announced by headquarters."

As for the accusations leveled by the parish in the appeal, Alvey says "FEMA is unable to respond to any third party claims or allegations."

Adding to the intrigue, and drenching everything involved with the appeal, is local politics. Former Livingston Parish President Mike Grimmer originally pulled the plug on IED getting paid, citing concerns about the work. He also told Baton Rouge's Business Report in 2011 that IED could be in breach of contract because it didn't get the required wetlands permits.

Current Parish President Layton Ricks, who used Grimmer's decision against him in the 2011 elections, has been the main thrust behind the appeal, which asserts FEMA told the parish IED wouldn't immediately need wetlands permits.