After Sandy: The State’s Contract with AshBritt Reeks of “Business as Usual”

Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty announced in early november his town hired AshBritt, a Florida-based company, to lead cleanup efforts in his borough. He indicated, “They are the contractor chosen by the state of New Jersey … I am following Gov. Christie’s lead on this.” Mayor Doherty may soon have reason to doubt his choice. AshBritt has left a wide trail of lawsuits against it, municipalities cancelling its contracts, charges of over-pricing, criticism from congressmen, and evidence of substantial political contributions. Governor Christie has vowed to be our leader for Sandy reconstruction, yet his leadership in this case reeks of “business as usual.”

As the Statehouse Bureau pointed out yesterday, “AshBritt’s critics contend it artificially drives up costs and takes advantage of officials in desperate circumstances, intimidated by Washington bureaucracy.” It goes on to point out that “Jeff Bertrand, the administrator for Wall Township, said, ‘AshBritt officials made their pitch to him days after the storm and estimated it would cost $2 million to remove the downed trees and other debris that had piled up.’ Bertrand went with a different option. In the end, Bertrand said he expects that the labor, tipping and rental costs will come to about $400,000.”

AshBritt’s trail becomes particularly strong in 2004 prior to Katrina when Corpwatch reports AshBritt,has close ties with Florida governor and presidential brother Jeb Bush, and lobbied hard for a state contract in Florida. Records show that AshBritt’s CEO is a major donor to state and federal GOP candidates. Later local debris-removal firms in Mississippi have said AshBritt’s cozy relationship with Washington essentially precluded competition for Katrina contracts.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research states that AshBritt found itself involved in controversy after Hurricane Katrina, when “some questioned whether AshBritt’s political donations or lobbyists paved the way for its fat federal contracts.” The Miami Herald reported that these questions led to Congressional hearings which 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.

More on AshBritt’s legal problems, donations, and contract with the State.

AshBritt’s spokesperson, like Community Education Centers until recently, is a lawyer – its General Counsel. It’s not surprising given the legal problems it has encountered. In one case a company alleged that AshBritt breached its Agreement by failing to pay the retainage, diverting work to other subcontractors, and paying less than the agreed rate for services. In another case AshBritt auditors were pummeled in an audit for allegedly cheating the Broward School District out of more than $765,000 for Hurricane Wilma repair work. In a different situation, the City of Naples terminated its contract with AshBritt after Hurricane Wilma, claiming Ashbritt wasn’t fullfilling the terms the contract.

Followthemoney website has documented $510,000 in AshBritt contributions to individual politicians and both parties in several states between 2004 and 2012. In addition, the Statehouse Bureau pointed out yesterday since 2011 AshBritt contributed $136,224 to the Republican Governors Association and $150,000 to the Democratic Governors Association. Christie has served as vice chairman of the Republican Governor Association and is scheduled to lead the group next year if re-elected in November.

New Jersey, immediately after Sandy, in an unseemly rush set up a no-bid contract with AshBritt by copying an existing agreement which AshBritt held with Connecticut. The NJ contract provides advantages to towns allowing them to hire AshBritt without bidding out the work, freeing them of some environmental regulations and providing them with Washington/FEMA expertise.

However, the State did not select any other other firms which could balance and compete with the services and charges of AshBritt. Ceres, a similar firm already working in New York, hasn’t found it easy to get work in our state. NJBiz points out, “With AshBritt holding a potentially lucrative no-bid contract, the arrangement puts companies like Ceres at a competitive disadvantage.” We see similar problems with other State contracts including those with halfway houses and most recently the State lottery.

Only time will tell whether the arrangement was beneficial and cost effective for Belmar and the 42 other NJ municipalities that have contracted with this firm. Nonetheless, the State’s haste, execution of a no-bid contract, failure to allow competition, and use of a firm with a questionable past raise troubling questions.  

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