The Slatest

With No Employees and No Experience, an Atlanta Woman Got $156 Million to Provide 30 Million Relief Meals to Puerto Rico

People wait on line for free food and health supplies passed out by the nonprofit Lets Give on December 19, 2017 in Utuado, Puerto Rico.
People wait for free food and health supplies passed out by the nonprofit Lets Give on Dec. 19 in Utuado, Puerto Rico.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

If you’re not Donald Trump, it’s pretty clear that the U.S. federal government’s response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria last September has been woefully inadequate. The response has been fraught with clear signs of corruption, trademark Trump quarreling, and general organizational ineptitude. Meanwhile, Trump has lobbed paper towels to desperate Puerto Ricans, while smearing lipstick all over the disaster’s face. But if that all seemed bad, a New York Times report Tuesday that a FEMA contractor delivered only 50,000 of the 30 million meals the company was contracted to provide, is possibly the worst tale of government malfeasance so far. The government’s Maria response wasn’t a relief effort; this was a land grab, a collection of kickbacks bundled like toxic mortgages in a credit default swap.

The details of the food delivery contract are even worse than it sounds. The $156 million contract to deliver the tens of millions of meals to Puerto Ricans struggling to rebuild was granted to Tribute Contracting LLC. The company’s sole employee is also its owner, Tiffany Brown. Brown, an Atlanta-based entrepreneur, the Times notes, had “no experience in large-scale disaster relief and at least five canceled government contracts in her past” when she was awarded the largest direct meals contract of the 2017 hurricane season.

It gets even worse. From the Times:

Ms. Brown, who is adept at navigating the federal contracting system, hired a wedding caterer in Atlanta with a staff of 11 to freeze-dry wild mushrooms and rice, chicken and rice, and vegetable soup. She found a nonprofit in Texas that had shipped food aid overseas and domestically, including to a Houston food bank after Hurricane Harvey.

By the time 18.5 million meals were due, Tribute had delivered only 50,000. And FEMA inspectors discovered a problem: The food had been packaged separately from the pouches used to heat them. FEMA’s solicitation required “self-heating meals.”

“Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated,” the FEMA contracting officer emailed Brown on Oct. 19. Four days later, on Oct. 23, the contract was officially terminated, just 20 days after it was signed.

Still somehow it gets worse.

Brown admits she didn’t have the money to finance to project but insists she wasn’t awarded the contract as part of a sweetheart deal. “I got it because I had a very good proposal and understanding of what was needed,” she told CNN. “Here is what I can say, I’ve had challenges with government contracts in the past. The primary reason is financial resources, and lack of support,” she said. She says FEMA was the real problem. “They need to really shore up their infrastructure for payment for their contractors,” Brown said. “If you want someone to provide a service of $155 million, you really should pay or wire transfer within 24 hours or pay a percentage.”

Brown told CNN she plans to sue the government for $70 million.

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Elliot Hannon is a writer in New York City.