A contract that could pay a politically connected company up to $100 million to clean up after Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters has come under scrutiny, the Star-Ledger is reporting.
Those paid by Florida-based AshBritt include George Gilmore, the Republican chairman of Ocean County; Maggie Moran, a former top aide to Gov. Jon Corzine whose husband is the mayor of Belmar; and Kris Kolluri, a New Jersey lobbyist and former head of the state Department of Transportation under Corzine, according to the newspaper.
Gilmore confirmed to the newspaper that he was hired by AshBritt, but declined to say whether he has a conflict of interest because of his role as attorney for towns, such as Seaside Heights and Jackson, that hired the company.
Gilmore's firm also represents Brick Township, which hired AshBritt.
Last month, Ocean County officials said the hiring of the Florida-based firm for debris removal was legal and necessary for a quick response in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy.
Responding to comments from Gary Black of Jackson, who claimed an article in the Star-Ledger of Newark criticized Ocean County's involvement with AshBritt, a debris removal firm hired by the state, the Ocean County Board of Freeholders said the county was piggybacking on the state's contract.
The exchange took place at a Jan. 16 meeting of the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
"Under state law, counties may use contracts the state has in place," Freeholder Gerry P. Little said in response to Black's comments.
That Ledger article, accessible here, suggested the company and the state exploited political ties and distress over the storm to gain municipal clients. Ocean County was only briefly mentioned as one of its clients.
In an email entitled "AshBritt Had Extensive Experience And Unique Capabilities To Respond To Major Disasters," Gov. Chris Christie's office responded Tuesday that AshBritt is a "national, rapid-response natural disaster recovery company well tested in marshaling extensive resources quickly to remove massive amounts of debris from communities that have been impacted by natural disaster."
"AshBritt is currently overseeing and coordinating 83 subcontractors in New Jersey for cleanup work – 71 percent (59) of which are all New Jersey companies," the email said.
The governor's office also says the contract was competitively bid, saying AshBritt was retained by the state on Oct. 31, 2013, via an existing competitively bid contract in Connecticut. "It was made available as one option among others for municipalities - many of which chose other available contractors, chose to use municipal resources, or both," the email said.
"Having AshBritt allowed New Jersey to make available as an option a previously procured, competitively bid contract for disaster management and debris removal services in the immediate aftermath of the storm," according to the email.
AshBritt has made billions of dollars by persuading states to sign lucrative "disaster recovery" deals that allow it unequaled access to local officials in a crisis, according to the Star-Ledger.
The company markets itself as an agency with the skill and connections needed to help embattled towns get the maximum reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after a disaster, according to the newspaper.
It offers towns and counties one-stop shopping: Pay us up front and we’ll hire the contractors to clear your streets and haul away the debris. And then we’ll take care of the bureaucracy to make sure you get the most money possible back from FEMA, according to the Star-Ledger.
AshBritt’s critics say the company artificially drives up costs and takes advantage of officials who are intimidated by Washington bureaucracy. But Jared Moskowitz, the company’s general counsel and a state representative in Florida, told the Ledger that such talk is "rumor and innuendo." He said about 70 percent of the contractors hired by AshBritt are from New Jersey.
So far, 43 municipalities that sustained significant damage have hired AshBritt. The state contract allows the towns to hire AshBritt without bidding out the work and frees them of some environmental regulations, the Ledger states.
Local mayors who have used the company say they had little time to search on their own, according to newspaper, and welcomed AshBritt. Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher told the Ledger: "They’re doing an absolutely outstanding job. . . . They work from the minute the sun comes up to the minute the sun sets.
A Dec. 6 news release from Toms River describes AshBritt as a "FEMA-approved" contractor. Asked about the Toms River statement, Albert Pillot, a spokesman with FEMA, said, "FEMA does not endorse, approve or recommend any contractors," according to the newspaper.
More information can be found in these two Star-Ledger articles: