Tiffany Brown: Entrepreneur accused of defrauding FEMA of $156M in Hurricane Maria relief contract
ATLANTA, UNITED STATES: A woman has been charged with stealing millions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) using a contract to provide food and water to the Puerto Rican communities that were ravaged by Hurricane Maria. Early in the crisis, FEMA awarded a substantial contract to an Atlanta entrepreneur to supply millions of meals, but only a small percentage of them were delivered. Numerous allegations have been leveled against Atlanta businesswoman Tiffany Brown, including cheating the agency of millions of dollars in relief monies.
Brown, 43, has been charged by the Department of Justice with 11 counts of major catastrophe fraud, 14 counts of wire fraud, one act of stealing from the government, and three counts of money laundering.
In her proposal, Brown claimed she had partnered with a major logistics agency to meet delivery requirements and had the "vehicles, staff, and know-how to meet delivery needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."
Soon after submitting the application, according to authorities, Brown reportedly falsely affirmed that she and her primary suppliers could provide one million of the "30 million self-heating meals in 30 days" starting on October 7, 2017. Officials assert that Brown had neither secured any suppliers for self-heating meals nor made any arrangements with shippers to deliver them.
In the end, FEMA gave Brown's business a contract to distribute the meals for close to $156 million. Despite not having a supplier for the meals, she allegedly gave FEMA coupons and paperwork proving that she had delivered 50,000 of them, according to officials. However, contrary to what was promised, the meals weren't self-heating.
FEMA terminated the contract "due to late delivery." The organization says Brown's company was vetted, but she has had five previous government contracts terminated for "not delivering required food" and her "inability to ship products." Besides, she had zero experience in dealing with large-scale disasters.
"I've had challenges in that area, particularly because I'm so young and being a woman in the food industry world," Brown said in an interview with CBS News in 2018. "My biggest mistake was not asking for more help."
On October 19, 2017, FEMA finally ended its agreement with Brown after a few weeks of claims. Authorities claim that even at that point, she lied to obtain more money.
"It is unconscionable that Brown would exploit the disaster that Hurricane Maria wrought on Puerto Rico," said US Attorney Ryan K Buchanan, according to United States Department of Justice. "The residents of Puerto Rico—fellow Americans—were depending on and expecting the very best from its federal government, and from one another, during this unprecedented disaster. Our office will not hesitate to prosecute those who attempt to defraud the government during times of great need."
According to CBS News, Democrats like Rep Stacey Plaskett criticized the agency's decision. "To issue a system-wide warning saying, this is not a company to do business with, then how could they have been prepared to do a $156 million contract with a one-person operation?" she said.
A federal grand jury indicted Brown for the allegations in September. During the crisis, FEMA maintained food supply wasn't interrupted but refused to comment during the appeal.