'Tiny' firm won $156 million FEMA contract for sending 30 million meals to Puerto Rico — but delivered only 50,000

Key Points
  • Tribute Contracting of Atlanta won a $156 million contract to provide 30 million meals to Puerto Rico hurricane victims but delivered just 50,000.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency canceled the contract just 20 days after firm owner Tiffany Brown won it with a low bid.
  • The firm ended up being paid $255,000 for 50,000 meals, according to information FEMA provided to CNBC.
FEMA personnel deliver supplies to Santa Ana community residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico.
Carlos Giusti | AP

A "tiny," one-woman firm "inexplicably" won a $156 million federal contract to deliver 30 million meals to Puerto Rico hurricane victims — but managed to deliver just 50,0000 meals before the contract was terminated for cause three weeks later, outraged lawmakers said Tuesday.

Atlanta-based Tribute Contracting had "a history of struggling with much smaller contracts" before winning the Federal Emergency Management Agency contract, noted Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands.

"It is difficult to fathom how FEMA could have believed that this tiny company had the capacity to perform this $156 million contract," Cummings and Plaskett wrote in a letter to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.

The firm ended up being paid $255,000 for 50,000 meals, according to information FEMA provided to CNBC.

Cummings and Plaskett, who sit on the committee, asked Gowdy, to issue a subpoena to FEMA seeking documents "relating to its failure to provide tens of millions of emergency meals" to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.

They wrote that the contract to Tribute comes after "numerous examples of disastrous contracting decisions by agencies that selected the lowest bidder" without assessing the bidder's ability to deliver on the contract.

Tribute Contracting is operated by a woman named Tiffany Brown, who ran an unsuccessful write-in candidacy for mayor of Atlanta in 2009.

The New York Times, which broke the story Tuesday, noted that Brown has "no experience in large-scale disaster relief."

Brown, whose Twitter bio refers to her as a "Diva, Mogul, Author, Idealist with scars to prove it," also has owned a clothing design company and a consulting firm, according to her online press kit.

Brown, who did not return a call from CNBC seeking comment, told House committee staff that she won the FEMA contract because the bid offered "the cheapest cost," according to the letter to Gowdy.

"She also explained that FEMA knew that she could not independently finance the production of this many meals in this short timeframe," the letter said. "She subcontracted to two companies ... but both stopped producing meals when they did not receive payment in a timely manner."

The Times reported that Brown's contract with FEMA was terminated Oct. 19 after the agency learned that just 50,000 meals out of the 18.5 million that were due for delivery had been sent, and that they had been packaged separately from pouches used to heat them. The newspaper said FEMA had required the meals to be "self-heating."

Brown, according to the paper, is appealing the termination.

The letter from Cummings and Plaskett pointed out that FEMA's awarding of the contract in October "is even more incomprehensible" given Tribute Consulting's inability to deliver as promised on five past government contracts that were each valued at less than $100,000.

The federal prison system on four occasions ended contracts with Tribute after it failed to deliver food products, the letter said.

And in 2016, after Tribute was unable to produce 3,000 tote bags with a Marine Corps logo as specified by contract, the Government Publishing Office barred the firm from any contracts worth more than $30,000 through Jan. 7, 2019.

A FEMA spokeswoman, when asked for comment, told CNBC, "While it would be inappropriate to comment on the pending appeal with the contractor in question, FEMA continues to provide meals to survivors in Puerto Rico."

"At the time of the contract termination there were ample commodity supplies in the pipeline, and distribution was not affected," the spokeswoman said.

"During the 2017 hurricane season, FEMA sourced over 200 million meals through multiple vendors in order to support disaster response activities across multiple disasters. There are sufficient commodities both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland to continue to meet identified needs for current or future disasters."