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Senators want broader probe of FEMA contracts in Puerto Rico

Four prominent Democratic senators on Thursday asked the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security to broaden an ongoing investigation into contracting and hurricane relief problems in Puerto Rico.

More than a year after Hurricane Maria’s devastating rampage across Puerto Rico, the island is struggling to rebuild. The letter from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and three other senators, directs the inspector general to look closely at the $1.2 billion Tu Hogar Renace program.

That program is one of several facing problems that were highlighted in September by the Miami Herald and McClatchy in a joint investigative project marking the one-year anniversary of the hurricane.

Tu Hogar Renace loosely translates to Your Home Rebuilt, and the program is supposed to provide quick relief for temporary repairs to damaged roofs, windows and water heaters. But reporting by the New York Times and other news organization has spotlighted high overhead costs and steep markups of supplies, limiting the reach of the dollars spent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It is a significant concern that only a small percentage of taxpayer funding went to actual home improvements for impacted Puerto Rico residents,” said the letter from senators, shared with McClatchy.

Reporting by Miami Herald described how FEMA rules leave it ill equipped to deal with realities on the island, such as homes built without permits and a much greater degree of informality in both construction and ownership records. Critics contend it has resulted in a well-meaning program that misses the mark on the people it was designed to serve.

The senators also want the inspector general to dig deep on FEMA’s contracting practices that have allowed inexperienced bidders to win large and often vital contracts, an area on which McClatchy’s reporting shined a light. And they want the inspector general to review contracts with two winning bidders in the Tu Hogar Renace program that they said have connections to the Trump administration.

One of them, Adjusters International, whose senior vice president is Daniel Craig, who had been the administration pick to be FEMA’s deputy director. He withdrew from consideration last year after NBC revealed that a secret government report concluded that while serving in the Bush administration he falsified government travel and timekeeping records.

Excel Construction, the other company of concern to the senators, donated $100,000 in 2016 to the Trump Victory Committee and later was one of seven companies awarded a lucrative Tu Hogar Renace contract.

FEMA had no immediate reaction, nor did Excel’s parent company in Baton Rouge, La. Calls to Adjusters International in Utica, NY, were not returned.

Warren was joined in the letter by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Ct., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

“I’m deeply concerned about reports of FEMA’s waste of taxpayer dollars, and the huge profits that are lining the pockets of companies connected to the president instead of helping Puerto Rico residents,” Warren said in a statement to McClatchy. “I hope the inspector general will address these troubling reports of waste and abuse.”.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall