Florida Democrat Randy Perkins says his lucrative ability to pick the taxpayer purse in the wake of devastating natural disasters makes him a perfect fit for Congress.
"I’m probably one of the most politically astute people in any business industry, let alone my own industry," said Perkins, owner and CEO of disaster relief contractor AshBritt Inc., in a Wednesday evening interview.
Perkins is running to fill the seat being vacated by Florida Senate hopeful Rep. Patrick Murphy. The Perkins campaign and Democratic Party organs in Washington have pointed to his business career as a major asset. However, past controversies involving AshBritt may cast doubt on his claims to business savvy.
Perkins defended AshBritt’s approach to government contracting, which he admitted entailed getting involved in the political process to sway lawmakers and regulators in charge of doling out billions in government aid.
The company was a lead government contractor working chiefly on debris removal after two of the country’s most devastating recent natural disasters: Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. In both cases, AshBritt flexed its political muscle in order to maximize its piece of ensuing procurement opportunities.
When Sandy hit New Jersey in late 2012, the company enlisted the services of leading political operatives in the state, some of whom had direct connections to local officials who signed off on millions of dollars in payments to AshBritt.
The company hired George Gilmore, then the chairman of the Republican Party of Ocean County, where a GOP-controlled county board offered to pay towns for Sandy cleanup costs if they awarded contracts to AshBritt.
It also hired Maggie Moran, once an aide to former Gov. Jon Corzine and the wife of Belmar, N.J., mayor Matt Doherty. Moran crafted a marketing strategy designed to sell city officials on AshBritt’s services.
"She helped deploy salespeople to the hardest-hit areas and used her extensive political network to set up meetings between company brass and local decision-makers," the Newark Star-Ledger reported.
Belmar eventually awarded AshBritt a no-bid contract for debris removal in the town. Moran and Doherty insisted that they never discussed the contract and that their marriage was irrelevant to its award.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s inspector general would later recommend that the federal government recoup more than $500,000 in disaster relief funds from Belmar due to the city’s failure to abide by contracting regulations.
Doherty was the target of a corruption investigation over the AshBritt contract, though no charges were ever brought against him. He was also accused of terminating another debris removal contract and awarding it instead to AshBritt due to political considerations.
The process by which AshBritt won the contracts angered some local contractors.
"You second guess yourself and wonder ‘What did we do? What didn’t we do?’ and then you see in hindsight that it was purely political," John de Rouville, the contractor who lost out on the bid, later told the Asbury Park Press.
Doherty and other New Jersey officials, including Gov. Chris Christie, who awarded contracts to AshBritt said their primary concern was a quick and effective Sandy response. Christie was fast-tracking a $100 million contract for AshBritt even before Sandy made landfall.
Perkins acknowledged that it brought on influential New Jersey figures in order to navigate the political terrain.
"The fact of the matter is, after they awarded the contract, we are now dealing with 50 different government entities, 51 to be exact, Democrats, Republicans, individual elected bodies, we do not know all the intricacies of the local government," he said.
Perkins downplayed the role of AshBritt’s political operation in securing the initial Sandy contract, but admitted that the company took advantage of that operation in order to ensure that it retained its position as one of the state’s dominant Sandy contractors.
"Democrats started attacking a couple weeks after the phenomenal decision that Gov. Christie made, all of a sudden they’re getting pressure from local vendors to put the contracts out to bid and this and that," he recalled. AshBritt was not about to forego taxpayer money.
"Yes, we’ve got the contract, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep the contract, and we’re not going to leave one dollar on the table," Perkins said. "When we have a contract we’re performing, we intend to finish the job. When the political malarkey starts, we’re going to do what we got to do to keep the contract."
The pressure local officials felt to open up contracts for bids stemmed from controversy over the rates that AshBritt charged for some of its debris removal services.
The company was paid $400 per tree removed under its state contract, for instance. Local contractors offered the service at $200 per tree. The company also charged more than double the rates of other contractors per cubic yard of debris cleared. One NJ town that hired local contractors reported paying about $26 per ton of debris removed. A nearby town paid AshBritt about $100 per ton.
Perkins defended the company’s markups.
"Just because something appears cheaper on the front end doesn’t mean it’s cheaper on the back end," he said, noting that faster recovery times prevented financial losses from hits to tourism and other local economic engines.
AshBritt’s chief draw in New Jersey and elsewhere was its contracting model: rather than doing the work itself, the company brought on subcontractors and took a fee from the awards delegated to them. That allowed for a high degree of coordination, but it swelled costs.
It also allowed AshBritt to engage in a practice that critics would later describe as "double dipping." Perkins was a partial owner of some of the contractors to which it delegated work, meaning in some cases he was making money both from the fee that AshBritt took off the top and the funds allocated to its subcontractor.
Perkins acknowledged the practice but criticized efforts to point it out.
"What does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It sounds sexy to you because you’re writing a story," he said.
He admitted that he had an ownership interest in one of AshBritt’s subcontractors on the Sandy job, and another after Hurricane Katrina.
As it did in New Jersey, AshBritt cultivated high-level political connections as it eyed lucrative contracts after the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast.
The company was already under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency tasked with the government’s immediate response. But given the scale of the disaster, the financial potential for AshBritt was far higher.
Its existing contract with the Corps was capped at about $200 million, Perkins explained. When Katrina hit, the government put out an emergency procurement notice, offering in excess of $3 billion in additional contracting funds.
A week after Katrina made landfall, AshBritt, which already employed the lobbying firm founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, brought on another lobbyist: Mike Parker, who until just a few years prior was the Bush administration official in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers. AshBritt employed Parker’s son at the time, Perkins noted.
The Corps eventually approved an emergency supplemental contract for AshBritt worth about $800 million.
To the extent that AshBritt’s disaster recovery work produced controversy, Perkins chalks it up to naked politics.
In New Jersey, "an overzealous state senator who thought she had a chance of beating—with all due respect to her, I get the political game, believe me I understand it—thought she had a chance of maybe unseating Gov. Christie," and initiated state investigations into the company as a political cudgel, he said.
"The reason she called [hearings on AshBritt’s contracts] was political, but she absolutely had an absolute right to do it, for the record."
Perkins sees similarly impure motives in news coverage of those controversies.
"Can you second guess things after the fact because it sells newspapers? Absolutely," he said. "We’ve been on the receiving end of that numerous times."