Firm hired ex-Corps head before winning deal

AshBritt, a debris-removal company, hired as its lobbyist a former head of the Army Corps of Engineers just before winning a controversial $500 million contract from the agency to do post-Hurricane Katrina cleanup.

Mike Parker, who was forced to resign as assistant secretary for civil works in 2002 after budget disagreements with Office of Management and Budget officials, registered as a lobbyist for AshBritt on Sept. 1, according to lobbying registration forms. The company hired Parker’s firm Welch Resources.

AshBritt, a politically connected company that has donated generously to Republican campaigns, won the contract from the Corps two weeks after Welch Resources filed its registration.

Corps officials said the hiring of Parker was unrelated to the contract award.

“Lobbyists don’t have anything to do with who gets a contract,” said Carol Sanders, a spokeswoman for the Corps. “Who you know does not matter.”

The contract awarded to AshBritt, based in Pompano Beach, Fla., was one of four debris-removal contracts that the Corps awarded. Sanders said 22 companies had submitted bids.

Sanders also noted that AshBritt had an existing relationship with the Corps. The company had won a hurricane-debris-removal contract before Katrina hit.

But congressional investigators are reportedly reviewing the contracts in part because of their size. And Richard Skinner, inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, told the House Transportation Public Building and Emergency Management Subcommittee, which was examining the Katrina disaster, that his staff was examining the debris contracts as well.

News reports of the contract, including a lengthy article in The New York Times that raised questions about the prices being charged in the debris contracts, have mentioned AshBritt’s relationship with Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, a firm founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican.

AshBritt paid that firm $40,000 for the first six months of 2005 to lobby on disaster-mitigation issues. Barbour has cut his ties to his former firm. His assets are managed by a blind trust.

AshBritt, which is based in Pompano Beach, Fla., also hired Adams & Reese, a New Orleans firm. Adams & Reese has lobbied for AshBritt since 2003. Former Louisiana Rep. James Hayes, a Democrat who became a Republican, is a lobbyist for AshBritt.

It isn’t clear how much AshBritt is paying Welch Resources to represent it. The registration doesn’t require disclosure of the contract’s value.

Phone calls to two numbers listed on AshBritt’s web site were unanswered.

Parker did not return a phone call.

Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal watchdog group, said AshBritt “knew which lobbyist could help them get the contract.”

While he added that hiring a lobbyist doesn’t automatically translate into winning a federal contract, Ashdown called Parker a “very good catch.”

Parker, who represented Mississippi as a member of Congress for 10 years, has been a harsh critic of the administration and Congress in post-Katrina interviews for not spending enough on Corps infrastructure projects.

Ashdown said Katrina has given new cachet on K Street to former officials at both the Corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the two principal overseers of the rebuilding effort.

Other senior disaster officials have been sought out as well. Former FEMA director and Bush 2000 campaign director Joe Allbaugh was hired by Kellogg, Brown & Root and the Shaw Group. Allbaugh has said he provides advice to his clients about how to prepare bids for federal contracts but is not soliciting federal officials on their behalf.

James Lee Witt, who directed FEMA during the Clinton administration, was hired by the state of Louisiana to help it recover from Katrina.