In August, I wrote about how Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration couldn’t afford to mess up the Hurricane Michael storm recovery plan.
Two months later, the Department of Economic Opportunity announced its intent to award Horne LLP — a company with more than a few black marks on its record — the contract to manage the $735 million recovery fund.
Florida Politics raised alarms about Horne when it bid on a different disaster management contract in 2018, and the red flags cited then are just as relevant today as they were two years ago. And they’ve only added more to the pile since then.
One could fill a bookshelf with accounts of Horne’s missteps and failures handling state disaster recovery contracts, so for the sake of brevity we’ll focus on the ones most relevant to the DEO contract, which is focused on infrastructure and housing.
Horne consulted on a similar contract managed by RISE West Virginia after a deadly 2016 flood that damaged or destroyed many homes in the state.
At issue is a contract the company landed in West Virginia that was so riddled with problems that the state’s Senate President and House Speaker asked a joint committee to investigate.
What was originally a mere $900,000 contract to develop an action plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development morphed into an $18 million money pit riddled with improper contract expansions and completely devoid of oversight.
After receiving millions in consulting fees, Horne proceed to do next to nothing. That’s not hyperbole —Horne was so lackadaisical in helping the people of West Virginia get back in their homes that the state’s then-Commerce Secretary, Woody Thasher, was forced to resign and his second-in-command was fired outright.
Horne has also bungled projects in its home state.
After Hurricane Katrina, federal auditors found the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency misspent $18 million in reconstruction grants, and nearly half the money was sent to Horne LLP, which was in charge of keeping track of the disaster money.
Auditors said Horne was overpaid to the tune of $7.7 million — almost the entire sum they received. How did they manage to collect tenfold what they were due? By charging as much as $109 per hour for clerical work such as scanning grant paperwork.
Horne was also in charge of the failed EnVision Tomorrow program launched by the Virgin Islands Housing Authority. The program — similar to Florida’s post-Michael grant — is focused on rebuilding homes destroyed by hurricanes.
A year in, Horne has made next to no progress. Just seven homes are were under construction as of September 2020, and all of them are on the island of St. Croix. Meanwhile, construction projects on St. Thomas are at a standstill because they are still working on debris removal, and the inaction is taking an additional toll on the Virgin Islands economy which, like the rest of the world, has taken a beating from the coronavirus pandemic.
“You don’t have people working, you don’t have contractors working, which means a lack of corporate income tax and a lack of gross receipts. The economy has to move and a vital part of it moving is V.I.H.F.A.,” Virgin Islands Sen. Janelle Sarauw said in a recent committee meeting on the contract.
The magnitude of the failure cannot be overstated — the Virgin Islands have received about $1 billion in reconstruction grants, yet VIHFA Director Darryl Griffith said they’ve only spent $19 million so far.
Now, the same company that bilked West Virginia out of millions, charged its home state a 1,000% premium to scan paperwork, and has yet to lift a finger on the Virgin Islands contract is one step away from taking charge of a $735 million storm recovery program in the Panhandle.
It has already been two years since Hurricane Michael made landfall and destroyed countless homes and lives. The people of Northwest Florida have already endured one of the most devastating natural disasters in state history. And by contracting with Horne, they could be forced to endure one of our own making.