Trash Talk: Debate Over Keys Debris Contracts Enters National Political Arena

Jul 19, 2018

Getting rid of Hurricane Irma debris from the Florida Keys took months and cost tens of millions of dollars. And now the saga has entered the political realm.

When Hurricane Irma slammed into the Keys last September, Monroe County had a contract in place to remove debris in case of a storm.

But three days after the storm, the state put out bids for new contracts through the Department of Transportation. Those contracts paid much more.

The new state contractors picked up the debris throughout the Lower Keys. That's the area that took a direct hit from Irma's eye.

Now those state contracts are becoming a national political issue, as Republican Gov. Rick Scott tries to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

Democrats in Congress are demanding answers and an audit from FEMA to see if the state overpaid for the Keys debris contracts.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, this week wrote to FEMA Administrator Brock Long with a list of questions about the debris contracts for Monroe County.

McCaskill is the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which oversees FEMA.

She refers to "potentially wasteful debris removal contracts the State of Florida awarded in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma" and requests details on FEMA's involvement in administering debris removal and paying the state for that removal - as well as when and how FEMA learned about the emergency contracts.

Also this week, all 11 Democrats from Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA is part of that department.

"[W]e are concerned that tens of millions of federal taxpayer dollars are being squandered as a result of exorbitant price-gouging orchestrated by the governor of the state of Florida in an inept and possible corrupt procurement of debris removal services follow Hurricane Irma," they wrote.

The representatives requested that the Office of Inspector General include the contracts in its audits of FEMA oversight of Hurricane Irma recovery.

Scott has disputed the stories on the emergency contracts, which have been reported by CBS-4.

"We sent additional resources to get the job done for a community that needed help and given a choice, I would do the same thing again," he said in a press release responding to the stories in June. "We took swift and appropriate action to get debris removed quickly so the more than 80 percent of Keys residents who evacuated could return home."

On Oct. 4 in Key West, Scott told WLRN that DOT was "doing their job" by handling debris cleanup under the emergency contracts.

"They're bringing in resources. They're going to continue to clean up the Keys. It's the most important thing we do," he said. "I'm going to keep doing everything I can to get the Keys cleaned up."

Scott also says the state was responding to a request for help from Monroe County.

The county's original debris contractor, Ashbritt, sued the county last October over the debris removal contract. That lawsuit is ongoing.