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Tuesday, December 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cost of government waste tied to Katrina may double

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The tally for Hurricane Katrina waste could top $2 billion next year because half of the lucrative government contracts valued at $500,000 or greater for cleanup work are being awarded with little competition.

Federal investigators already have determined the Bush administration squandered $1 billion on fraudulent disaster aid to individuals after the 2005 storm. Now they are shifting their attention to the multimillion-dollar contracts to politically connected firms that critics have long said are a prime area for abuse.

In January, investigators will release the first of several audits examining more than $12 billion in Katrina contracts. The charges range from political favoritism to limited opportunities for small and minority-owned firms, which initially got only 1.5 percent of the total work.

"Based on their track record, it wouldn't surprise me if we saw another billion more in waste," said Clark Kent Ervin, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general from 2003-04. "I don't think sufficient progress has been made."

He called it inexcusable that the Bush administration would still have so many no-bid contracts. Under pressure last year, Federal Emergency Management Agency director David Paulison pledged to rebid many of the agreements, only to backtrack months later and reopen only a portion.

Investigators are examining whether some of the agreements — which in some cases were extended without warning rather than rebid — are still unfairly benefiting large firms.

"It's a combination of laziness, ineptitude and it may well be nefarious," Ervin said.

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said the agency was working to fix its mistakes by awarding contracts for future disasters through competitive bidding. Paulison has said he welcomes additional oversight but cautioned against investigations that aren't based on "new evidence and allegations."

"As always, FEMA will work with Congress in all aspects to ensure that we are carrying out the agency's responsibilities," McIntyre said.

The Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane swept ashore in southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, leveling homes and businesses along the Gulf Coast. Its storm surge breached levees in New Orleans, unleashing a flood that left more than 1,300 people dead, hundreds of thousands homeless and tens of billions of dollars worth of damage.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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