Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Puerto Rico’s Former FEMA Chief Moves to a Firm that Advises the Island’s Main Recovery Office

By on August 22, 2019

(Screen capture of www.periodismoinvestigativo.com)
By Vanessa Colón Almenas and Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez

The former Coordinator for Disaster Recovery for Puerto Rico for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael F. Byrne, now works with one of the companies that advises the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency, known as COR3, the agency established by the government of Puerto Rico to centralize funds and efforts for the recovery process after Hurricane María.

Byrne left FEMA in April and, according to his official LinkedIn account, a month later he started working with Deloitte, one of the four firms that offers services to COR3. In his new role in the private sector, Byrne said he will “support clients through the complete cycle of crisis preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation.”

Deloitte’s contract with COR3 — for $31.6 million — was granted June 7, 2018 and runs until June 30, 2021.

According to the contract, Deloitte — a multinational firm that provides audit services and financial advice, among others — is involved in formulating the necessary budget for general recovery efforts, trains COR3 employees for fraud detection and prevention, and helps in the compliance with legal requirements related to disaster and recovery issues.

Likewise, COR3 delegated to Deloitte the development of a strategic plan for Puerto Rico’s short-, medium-, and long-term recovery.

During Rosselló administration, Deloitte has signed 10 contracts with the Government of Puerto Rico worth $71.8 million, according to the Comptroller’s Office.

From 2006 to 2010, Byrne was also senior vice president at ICF Incorporated, a company that has the largest COR3 contract, for $188,850,000. The Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico approved an increase to ICF Incorporated’s contract from $188,850,000 to $338,809,096 in a  letter dated May 29, 2019.

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI for its initials in Spanish) tried to contact Byrne to ask if he had to seek an ethics release for his new position, but there was no response.

The same question was sent to Deloitte, to find out if the company made sure there is no conflict of interest related to the prior position Byrne held in FEMA. Jonathan Gandal, Deloitte Services’ Managing Director, said in a written statement that “as an organization committed to our clients and the public interest, we have a robust process in place to maintain compliance with applicable ethics rules and confirmed the process was followed with regard to his employment.”

On August 13, Byrne accompanied COR3’s new director, Ottmar Chávez-Piñero, to a meeting with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González. The meeting was to discuss “the status of federal funds for the island and how to speed up requests,” González wrote in her Twitter account.

The CPI requested an interview with González to learn the details of the meeting, but her press officer, Marieli Padró, simply reiterated that the meeting was to learn the status of the work in progress after Chávez-Piñero’s arrival to COR3.

“The Commissioner wants the work to be accelerated and the new director [of COR3] is on the same page. The Commissioner presented proposals and requested additional information,” said Padró, who added she did not have specific details about the proposals González presented to Chávez-Piñero.

The CPI asked about Byrne’s presence at the meeting, as evidenced by the photo shared by the Resident Commissioner, but there was no explanation.

Chávez-Piñero was appointed director of COR3 on July 31 by then Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, two days before his resignation became effective. Chávez-Piñero has also directed the General Services Administration since July 2018. COR3 was headed by Omar Marrero until July 31, when Rosselló appointed him director of the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, or AAFAF, a position formerly held by Christian Sobrino, one of the administration’s casualties after the Telegram chat scandal.

Byrne’s return to Puerto Rico’s recovery processes coincides with FEMA’s restitution of Form 270. This form imposes a double-check process — by COR3 and FEMA — of the reimbursement request documents, in addition to the confirmation of eligibility of the applicant, the affected structure, its damage and cost.

A CPI source with internal knowledge of FEMA questioned Byrne’s new role as a COR3 advisor, since, as he explained, during his time at the federal agency in Puerto Rico, the official “failed to get things to work.”

Byrne was in charge of implementing substantial changes in managing FEMA’s disaster-related work, as well as the application of procedure 428, a section of the Stafford Act that allows for better construction, regardless of pre-existing conditions but also establishes greater controls. In the case of Puerto Rico, section 428 will be applied to all large permanent projects (more than $123,100), which obliges establishing fixed cost estimates. If the final cost exceeds the estimate, FEMA will not approve or disburse the increase in funds.

Much of the delay in the recovery process is related to the fact that FEMA, COR3 and the applicant must agree on fixed cost estimates.

One of the last official statements Byrne made as FEMA’s recovery coordinator in Puerto Rico was in February of this year. “We’re proud to work closely with the Puerto Rico Department of Housing and COR3 in what will surely be the first of many important projects that will help define the future of the strongest and most resistant construction on the island,” he said in reference to federal fund allocations to the Department of Housing for the relocation of public housing projects in Ciales.

Changes in the local FEMA organization chart

After Byrne left in April, FEMA experienced several changes in its administrative staff in Puerto Rico.

According to what three sources told the CPI separately, on July 11, FEMA informed its local staff that Justo Hernández would no longer be the Acting Director of the FEMA Caribbean Office and would return to the central offices in Washington DC, where he directs FEMA’s of Operational Coordination Division.

According to Juan Antonio Rosado, spokesman for FEMA in Puerto Rico, the rest of the administrative positions at FEMA remained as follows:

  • Jonathan Hoyes, federal coordinator of Disaster Recovery;
  • James Russo, Deputy Federal coordinator of Disaster Recovery and Acting Director of the Caribbean Office;
  • Dominique Lennox, Acting Deputy Coordinator of Recovery Operations;
  • Gregory Bosko, Infrastructure Branch Director;
  • Claude Hyacinthe, Deputy Infrastructure Branch Director (Community Services Directory); and,
  • Antonio Busquets, Acting Deputy Infrastructure Branch Director of (Municipalities).

Emergency work track record

Byrne worked for FEMA in Puerto Rico since October 2017, when the federal agency announced his designation as “federal coordinator” for immediate needs following Hurricane María on Sept. 20. The salary of a federal employee at the executive level in 2018 ranged from $153,800 to $210,700, according to data from the US Office of Personnel Management.

At that time, Byrne assumed the role that was held until then by the director of the Caribbean Area Division, Alejandro De La Campa, who was the main liaison between the federal agency, the governor and the 78 municipalities.

In November 2017, FEMA also appointed Byrne as the Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator (FDRC) to “facilitate the recovery coordination between Puerto Rico, the federal government, municipalities, private sector and nonprofit, religious and community organizations.”

In 2009, Byrne — a former New York City firefighter — became the first director of the US Office of National Capital Region Coordination for the Department of Homeland Security. He joined FEMA in 1999 as director of the Response and Recovery Division for region II that includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That year, Byrne led the federal response operations for hurricanes Lenny and Floyd, and Tropical Storm Allison, which hit the southern United States. He worked at ICF for four years, from 2006 to 2010, and at the Red Cross, from 2013 to 2015.

–The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI by its Spanish initials) is a nonprofit organization that trains journalists and has a legal program to help it in its objective of “working for freedom of information in Puerto Rico.”

—Views expressed in this section do not necessarily represent the opinion of Caribbean Business.