‘They Killed the Program’: FEMA Contractors in Puerto Rico Claim They Were Fired For Reporting Waste and Fraud

This article was originally published here.

Federal contractors working to improve Puerto Rico’s disaster response were laid off after they filed whistleblower reports claiming that their efforts were blocked by dysfunction and fraud.

Six months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017, a group of contractors hired by ATCS, a civil engineering firm based in Herndon, Va., arrived there. The Federal Emergency Management Agency hired them to implement a best practices system for recovery efforts to maximize speed and marshal resources efficiently.

Members of the team, which usually comprised about nine contractors, said friction with FEMA management around their efforts led to waste of taxpayer funds. It was, they concluded, a part of a wider cultural problem that has marred multibillion-dollar recovery efforts in the U.S. territory.

The program sought to apply an operational structure called Six Sigma, used at General Electric, and the contractors had taught it to companies and the military and consulted on past FEMA projects.

It was ended prematurely after, the contractors claim, they were punished for identifying the very problems they had been brought in to try to solve.

“Of all the organizations I’ve seen so far, they really needed it,” said Jeff Wykowsky, a former General Electric and Verizon executive who worked on the program. “My view is they need it really badly, and they killed the program.”

Barry Angeline, a member of the team who helped lead the effort to document the team’s concerns to the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, the Cabinet-level department that oversees FEMA, said, “It’s a clusterf–k. Iraq is a goddamn German train schedule compared to this place.”

The program, scheduled to end in October, was wrapped in June, after members of the team signed their names onto multiple complaints sent to the inspector general.

When reached for comment, Juan Rosado-Reynés, FEMA’s spokesman for operations in Puerto Rico, was uncertain as to whether ATCS was a prime contractor, and directly under FEMA control, or a subcontractor. Rosado-Reynés promised a more definitive answer multiple times, but did not meet the deadlines he set for providing them. He did not answer why the contract ended prematurely.

Members of the group, most of whom were subcontractors themselves, identified ATCS as a prime contractor, under the direct control of FEMA. The contractors say that ATCS was paid $257 per hour, while they were paid between $120 and $150 an hour. They said that the terms of the contract were unusually written when compared with other government-related projects they had worked on and that expanded changes to their responsibilities were not reflected in the terms of the contract.

ATCS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In a complaint to the inspector general, submitted on April 8, the contractors alleged that FEMA mismanaged the program by directing the team, “in unsound and wasteful practices … This has [led] to an almost total lack of providing FEMA with the deliverables as described in the contract.”

Friction with FEMA management, they claim, resulted in wasted taxpayer funds and was a part of a wider cultural problem at FEMA that has marred federal recovery efforts in the U.S. territory, which has struggled to recover from a pair of hurricanes that hit the U.S. territory in 2017.

Those hurricanes caused massive damage, including power outages that lasted months. In total, the storms and their aftermath are believed by official estimates to have killed approximately the same number of people as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Angeline was let go from the project in May, even before FEMA said it would end the group’s contract early. It was a decision, he believes, that was retaliation for reporting concerns to the inspector general.

He and other team members said that they believe Mike Byrne, the head FEMA official for the agency’s assistance to Puerto Rico, supported their work. But they said that FEMA management under Byrne undermined their efforts, saying the head of FEMA’s continuous improvement program on the island “was hostile to the [team’s] mission and obstructive of their efforts,” the complaint reads.

Members of the consulting team described confrontations with FEMA managers, and Angeline and other team members said that warnings about a sloppy damage assessment process in the field that could lead to abuse were ignored. Members of the contracting team also say after months of resistance, FEMA managers then tried to pressure the team to certify local hires who had not completed necessary training for the program.

Angeline told the Washington Examiner he planned to file a whistleblower reprisal complaint to the inspector general in addition to the three complaints he and other team members submitted.

“On first brush, that seems absolutely retaliatory,” said Irvin McCullough, a lawyer and analyst specializing in national security whistleblowing cases for the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization Government Accountability Project.

Whether Angeline and members of the team qualify for whistleblower status depends in part on whether they can successfully argue they observed waste and abuse of federal funds. If they can, McCullough said, “You are protected from retaliation by law.”

He added, “Even if this person’s a contractor they can submit a complaint to the IG, and the IG will open a reprisal investigation.”

To Angeline, the debacle is a microcosm of organizational and cultural problems at FEMA plaguing the entire recovery effort.

“This is representative of a systemic problem,” said the consultant.