JACKSON, MS (AP) In the battle for multimillion-dollar hurricane cleanup contracts, a Gulfport attorney said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is sending the message that Goliath out-of-state firms can bully Mississippi contractors out of the competition.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced April 21 that a $150-million award to Gulfport-based Necaise Brothers Construction had been sidelined by protests from other companies. In the end, the beneficiary will be Pompano Beach, FL-based AshBritt Inc., which earlier had been awarded a $500-million contract.
The Corps awarded Necaise Brothers the contract for hurricane cleanup in April after coming under scrutiny for giving the award to AshBritt with little competition after the Aug. 29 storm.
The Corps said it has since tried to engage Mississippi businesses in the unprecedented cleanup effort, but challenges from other companies are making that difficult to do.
AshBritt failed to win the latest contract when it was rebid. When Necaise received the award, AshBritt and several other companies, including at least one from Mississippi, challenged.
The Corps said protests are reviewed by the Government Accountability Office, which takes 100 days and slows progress on the coast.
“The delays are a matter of law and beyond the control of the Vicksburg District,” Corps Spokesman Frank Worley said in statement. “The anticipated length of time it will take to resolve the protest issue essentially precludes the district from being able to make an efficient and effective transition to a new contractor.”
AshBritt will be allowed to extend its current $500-million contract to do the work.
Randy Perkins, president of AshBritt, said it would have been cost and time prohibitive for the Corps to change contractors when the work is almost finished. He said that most of the work will be done by mid-May.
“We still feel very strongly that we’ve exceeded our contract expectations, hired hundreds and hundreds of Mississippi companies, spent tens of millions of dollars with subcontractors in the state of Mississippi and the Corps moved to award this contract and we have legal right and a First Amendment right to protest that decision,” Perkins said in an interview. “We exercised that with our law firm.”
Also, Perkins said the Necaise contract would have cost the government 35 to 40 percent more than AshBritt will end up charging.
Joe Sam Owen, an attorney of Necaise Brothers, said the fight is just beginning, though he isn’t sure what legal action he’ll take.
He claimed AshBritt protested the Necaise Brothers contract knowing that the move could buy time to finish the work before Necaise could begin.
That’s why Owen said he filed an application for an injunction in U.S. District Court April 19 that sought to make AshBritt quit doing work that he thinks belongs to Necaise.
The next day, the Corps canceled the Necaise contract, which the company claimed “has mooted our application for injunction because now we don’t have a contract.”
“I find it somewhat coincidental that they terminate the contract the next day after we filed an application for preliminary injunction,” Owen said. “The application was filed against AshBritt and the Corps.”
If the injunction had been granted it would have prolonged the recovery effort on the coast, Perkins said. “The injunctive relief would have shut down the job,” he said. “It would have stopped us from working, it wouldn’t have put them to work.”
Worley, the Corps spokesman, said he was not aware of any court filings and could not comment on ongoing litigation.
Worley maintained that the contract was canceled because of protest delays. The Corps wants most of the work done by the end of May and it would take until July just to process the latest contract challenges, he said.
Worley would not speculate on whether an unintended consequence of the action would be that other companies would protest new contracts to score extensions on work they already have.