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Democrats urge probe into cost of blue tarps

WASHINGTON—Congressional Democrats are calling for federal officials to investigate "Operation Blue Roof," the program that could install tens of thousands of waterproof tarps on the roofs of houses in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi.

Citing a recent Knight Ridder story on the program in a letter this week, two leading congressional Democrats have asked the inspector general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to investigate the program's spending and oversight.

"With a project of such great importance and potential expense, strong management and oversight is essential," Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey said in a joint statement. "Yet, this doesn't seem to be the case."

Thompson is the ranking Democratic member on the House Homeland Security Committee, and Pascrell is the ranking Democrat on its emergency preparedness subcommittee.

By some estimates, the program could put blue plastic tarps on hundreds of thousands of roofs of damaged homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and other areas affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The tarps temporarily stem water damage to homes, while homeowners work to line up permanent roofs.

The blue-roof program began in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and is among the largest roofing projects in the nation's history.

Knight Ridder, however, found that a lack of oversight, generous contracting deals and poor planning mean government agencies are shelling out as much as 10 times what the temporary fix would normally cost.

The House Democrats cited those figures, saying the government was paying $2,980 to $3,500 for each tarp job—when the usual going rate is $300.

In all, Knight Ridder found in late September that the government was paying contractors an average of $2,480 for less than two hours of work to cover each damaged roof—even though it's giving them the blue sheeting for free.

"If contractors are excessively overpaid for the standard commercial value of their work, we've got a problem," Thompson said in his statement.

Contractors generally defended the costs, saying they were required to mobilize hundreds of construction crews, move supplies halfway across the country and house and feed armies of workers to get the program running. The Army Corps also previously defended the program, saying the agency strictly followed government contracting requirements and did all it could to get the best deal for the roofing work.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave the Army Corps the responsibility of overseeing the blue-roof program. In their letter, the House Democrats asked the Army Corps and its inspector general to give them contracting documents on the program, any information on complaints about performance of the program's contractors, and information on minority and small business participation in the program. It said it would like the information by Dec. 12.

The Army Corps had no immediate comment on the letter.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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