PRC, FEMA, and MEMA battle over who owes whom what

Published 4:12 pm Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Pearl River County is one of the counties that is still trying to get reimbursement for debris removal from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Pearl River County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin said last week the county is having trouble claiming somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million and $6 million in debris removal reimbursement.

Asked why, Lumpkin said he hasn’t been given what he considers an acceptable reason.

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Lumpkin said that there are numerous delays and he submitted some claims more than a year ago for work that was completed right after the storm.

“It’s just slowed down real slow,” said Lumpkin. “It’s dragging on and on.”

Lumpkin said it’s not a question of whether the county paid too much for the removal, because the county contract with contractor Huey Stockstill was for $19.80 per cubic yard. While that amount is slightly higher than the statewide average of $17 per cubic yard, it is still lower than the $19.95 per cubic yard that Mississippi and FEMA agreed was reasonable.

Patricia Whitt, with the FEMA Field Public Information Office, says it’s not FEMA that is withholding the money. Whitt said in a phone interview Friday that FEMA has put the money into a checking account for the state, and that the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency is responsible for administering the funds to the individual counties.

Whitt said at the present time, $2 billion have been put into the account, and the state has dispersed about half of that amount.

“Since the state has not paid out the entire amount obligated by FEMA, the official word is that applicants have not provided adequate documentation to the state, or applicants have not justified their need for the entire amount,” said Whitt.

In a phone interview Tuesday, MEMA spokeman Lea Stokes said that MEMA is holding the money dependent upon the outcome of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

MEMA director Mike Womack said that only part of the money paid by the county for debris removal is actually being investigated, but that the FBI has asked MEMA to wait about paying any more funds until the case is settled.

The case in question is one involving indictments against Allan Kitto of Dundee, Fla., Clinton Miller of Carriere, and Lauren Robertson of Picayune. The defendants in question pled guilty in February of this year to creating and submitting false debris removal load slips in the amount of $716,677, and are awaiting sentencing.

Womack said the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office told the county to continue paying the debris removal slips even though the county knew the slips were fraudulent for the purposes of the investigation.

The hold-up now is the question of is who is responsible for reimbursing the county for the money spent on the fraudulent slips. That was not a question that MEMA could answer.

“That’s going to be between the federal agencies,” said Stokes, meaning the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and “possibly even FEMA.”

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Lumpkin said the last payment he received on any receipt was in November of last year, while all the work in question was completed last August. Lumpkin said while he somewhat understands that the funds being investigated cannot be paid, he does not understand why other receipts cannot be paid.

Lumpkin believes that since the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office are the ones who told him to pay the fraudulent slips, they should have worked out with FEMA beforehand who was going to pay back the money to the county. However, Lumpkin believes that FEMA should go ahead and pay the county and then work out who actually is responsible for the money.

“If anyone could stand being owed, it would be the federal government, not the local governments,” said Lumpkin.

Lumpkin also said that MEMA keeps telling him they do not have the money. Lumpkin said when money is obligated by FEMA, it is not automatically transferred to the state.

“I have to go to MEMA and then MEMA requests the funds,” said Lumpkin.

The FBI had not responded to questions concerning the request to hold all the funds by press time.