Battle begins over who'll get lucrative Haiti cleanup contracts

As Haiti begins digging out from under 60 million cubic meters of earthquake wreckage, U.S. firms have begun jockeying for a bonanza of cleanup work.

It's unclear at this point who will be awarding the cleanup contracts, but there is big money to be made in the rubble of some 225,000 collapsed homes and at least 25,000 government and office buildings.

At least two politically connected U.S. firms have enlisted powerful local allies in Haiti to help compete for the high-stakes business.

Randal Perkins, the head of Pompano Beach-based AshBritt, has already met with President René Préval to tout his firm's skills. To press his case, Perkins, a big U.S. political donor with a stable of powerful lobbyists, has lined up a wealthy and influential Haitian businessman, Gilbert Bigio, as a partner.

Perkins isn't the only hard-charging contender for cleanup work. Another is Bob Isakson, managing director of Mobile, Ala.-based DRC Group, a disaster recovery firm whose résumé includes hurricanes, wars, ice storms and floods. He's also met with Préval since the earthquake.

How the work is delegated and who ends up awarding the contracts remains to be seen, but Préval is expected to play a pivotal role in setting priorities, even if others hold the purse strings. The United Nations designated former President Bill Clinton to coordinate Haitian relief efforts, and an international forum to coordinate plans is expected to be held this spring.

``We don't know who's going to fund the cleanup and how it's going to proceed. That's all a mystery,'' DRC's Isakson said. ``But cleaned up it has to be.''

In his Jan. 28 meeting with Préval, which was attended by a Miami Herald reporter who was chronicling a day in the president's life, Perkins made a hard sell, boasting of AshBritt's $900 million U.S. government contract to clean up after Hurricane Katrina and promising his firm would create 20,000 local jobs.

``It does no good if you bring in predominantly U.S. labor and when it's done, they leave. This is an opportunity to train thousands of Haitian people in skills and professions,'' Perkins, a 45-year-old Sweetwater native, told The Miami Herald. ``If you don't create jobs for Haitians, your recovery is going to be a failure.''

AshBritt, Perkins said, also has clinched a coveted contract to handle future disaster cleanup work for the U.S. government in California and several other states.

``First and foremost, we have the experience,'' Perkins said.

That experience has come with controversy.

After Katrina, some questioned whether AshBritt's political donations or lobbyists paved the way for its fat federal contracts. The lobbyists have included: Barbour Griffith & Rogers, a firm founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; Mike Parker, a former Mississippi Republican congressman who also was a senior official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and Ron Book, a South Florida power broker.

Congressional hearings after Katrina aired objections that local contractors were passed over in favor of AshBritt. A 2006 congressional report examining federal contract waste and abuse noted AshBritt used multiple layers of subcontractors, each of whom got paid while passing on the actual work to others.

Even now, AshBritt is under scrutiny by the Broward school district after an internal audit found the company allegedly overbilled by $765,000 for work after Hurricane Wilma in October 2005.

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