By Jim DeFede

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – One year after Governor Rick Scott responded to the devastation of Hurricane Irma by ignoring the debris removal contracts already in place in the Florida Keys and opting instead to hire more expensive companies to do the work, the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security is launching his own investigation into what happened, CBS Miami News has learned.

The audit follows a written request by the eleven Florida Democrats in Congress who called on the IG to initiate a review, arguing “tens of millions of federal taxpayer dollars are being squandered.”

In their letter, the Florida Democrats cited the results of a CBS Miami investigation which found one of the companies the state selected after the storm had no previous emergency debris removal experience, while more qualified firms were prevented from even submitting bids. An analysis by CBS Miami found the governor’s emergency contracts will end up costing taxpayers an additional $28 to $30 million.

“An OIG audit would go far to restore public confidence that taxpayer funds spent on disaster relief will not be allocated inappropriately or inefficiently,” the members of Congress wrote.

In his response to the Florida Democrats, the acting Inspector General, John Kelly, wrote: “We are reviewing FEMA’s program implementation in response to Hurricane Irma, including pre-disaster debris removal contracts. We believe that this work will address many of the concerns raised in your letter.”

Kelly went on to write: “We also intend to initiate an audit regarding the specific issues you have raised with respect to the contracts in Monroe County.”

The emergency contracts were the focus of a series of stories by CBS Miami, entitled Debris Debacle. The stories detailed how Scott’s administration issued emergency contracts for the lucrative work of clearing fallen trees, palm fronds, as well as the remnants of destroyed homes and trailers.

CBS Miami reviewed more than $43 million worth of invoices submitted by Munilla Construction Management (MCM) and Community Asphalt, the two firms selected to operate in the Keys under the emergency contract.

If the Governor used one of the companies already under contract with the state, it would have cost taxpayers as little as $13 million to do the exact same work.

The prices in the emergency contracts were believed to be the highest in the state.

For instance, to sweep curbs and gutters, MCM charged $913 a mile while the three firms the governor ignored would have charged far less – between $12 and $123.

Florida Democrats weren’t the only ones raising questions.

Since Florida is expected to ask the federal government to pay for the cleanup, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee, said she wanted more information from FEMA to make sure taxpayers weren’t being abused. In her letter to FEMA Administrator Brock Long, McCaskill posed a series of questions including: “When and how did FEMA first learn that the state was considering awarding – or had awarded – emergency contracts for debris removal in Monroe County?”

In recent months, McCaskill, a former state auditor, has been focused on FEMA’s response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. As she noted in her letter to FEMA: “I have previously raised concerns regarding FEMA’s failure to use competitively bid prepositioned contracts.”

In a statement to CBS4, McCaskill said: “I’m going to keep repeating this as many times as I have to – we need more prepositioned contracts, and we need to make sure they are executed properly. In this case you saw prepositioned contracts actually in place, but they didn’t get used and that may have left taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars – we need to find out why.”

The letter sent by the Florida Democrats to the Inspector General hit a much sharper tone in attacking Governor Scott for what they described as “price-gouging orchestrated by the governor … in an inept and possibly corrupt procurement of debris removal services following Hurricane Irma.”

At the time McCaskill and the Florida Democrats noted their complaints a spokeswoman for Scott dismissed them as partisan attacks.

“It’s disappointing to see democrats care more about private vendors who lost their opportunity to profit off a disaster than they do about the families who were able to quickly return home thanks to the work of Governor Scott,” Scott campaign spokeswoman Kerri Wyland said. “It’s easy for politicians to look back after the fact and try to score political points, but Governor Scott was in charge of leading the state through the largest storm in recent history – his top focus was on the safety and recovery of our communities and he did that while protecting taxpayer dollars, not special interests.”

When asked to comment on the initiation of an Inspector General audit, the governor’s office instead sent CBS Miami virtually the same statement it has provided for months regarding debris removal in the Florida Keys, a statement that includes false and misleading statements.

For instance, in what appears to be a justification for the higher priced emergency contracts,  the Governor’s Office claims that Scott heard complaints from Monroe County the debris removal companies with pre-existing contracts “were not providing the agreed upon service and were demanding higher prices.”

There is no evidence that occurred. In addition, CBS Miami has obtained sworn statements from both local and state officials who categorically deny Monroe County asked the state to take over. There is also video of the Monroe County Commission complaining that Governor’s Scott’s use of emergency contracts was hurting county residents and slowing down their recovery. The mayor of Monroe County even accused the governor of “price gouging.”

Here is the statement the governor’s office provided in response to the pending IG audit:

“Prior to Hurricane Irma, counties entered into contracts with debris removal companies. After the storm, the Governor heard from many local communities, including Monroe County, that many of these companies were not providing the agreed upon service and were demanding higher prices. This is unacceptable. Governor Scott will continue to fight for consumers – not businesses who attempted to take advantage of their communities after this massive and deadly storm. He’s glad that that the Florida Keys met his goal of reopening on October 1, and will continue to work to ensure that every family in Florida can completely recover.”

The governor’s office also pointed to testimony from Monroe’s emergency management director, Martin Senterfitt, who appeared in front of the Florida Legislature during the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response & Preparedness in October praising the state for its response to the storm.

Here is what Senterfitt said:

“The amount of debris we’re facing, some estimates over 2 million cubic yards of debris. It’s piled on the streets, it looks like the Florida Keys now has mountains. The debris issue is tremendous, but we’re working it. Fortunately, great partnerships, FDOT stepped forward, has really taken a leadership role and has helped us solve these problems. The reality is in times of disaster there’s never perfect answers. So much of this, by the very definition of a disaster, it’s a crisis and we have to make decisions because they’re the right decisions to make, not because they have the least amount of risk sometimes. We have to step up. We have to find solutions. We have to get to yes. You can’t just say no and give up in the middle of a disaster and DOT really stepped up for us and helped us find those solutions.”

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