USA BLANCO
Shawn Thew  /  EPA via Sipa Press
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.
updated 9/28/2005 7:43:50 PM ET 2005-09-28T23:43:50

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked Congress on Wednesday for help in rebuilding her devastated state, saying Hurricanes Katrina and Rita “knocked us down but they did not knock us out.”

Appearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Blanco in her opening statement did not mention former FEMA director Michael Brown, who on Tuesday had blamed state and local officials in Louisiana for not responding appropriately to the storm.

“We are looking forward, not backward, “ Blanco said.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley also were testifying before the committee via teleconference hookup from their state capitols. The Senate panel is working on a long-term tax bill to help revitalize the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast.

Blanco said 40 percent of Louisiana’s businesses were lost or damaged in the storm and said the state’s most pressing need is jobs.

“That’s what we need,” she said. “That’s exactly what we need in the face of this suffering and hardship — jobs.”

Auditors examine contracts
Across the Capitol, a House panel was hearing pledges from government auditors that they will closely examine millions of dollars in contracts the Bush administration awarded to politically connected companies for Hurricane Katrina relief.

The inspectors general from half a dozen agencies, as well as officials from the Government Accountability Office, on Wednesday were addressing a House subcommittee on the Katrina cleanup and announcing several new audits to combat waste and fraud.

They are pledging strong oversight that includes a review of no-bid contracts and close scrutiny of federal employees who now enjoy a $250,000 — rather than a $2,500 — purchase limit for Katrina-related expenses on their government-issued credit cards.

“When so much money is available, it draws people of less than perfect character,” H. Walker Feaster, inspector general of the Federal Communications Commission, said. “It underscores the need for internal controls of the money going out.”

The joint appearance of government auditors comes amid a flurry of legislation pending in Congress that would create additional layers of oversight to the Katrina contracting and award process.

It also comes amid growing charges of favoritism that critics say led to government missteps in the wake of the Katrina disaster.

Brown assailed during appearance
In a House hearing Tuesday, both Republicans and Democrats assailed Brown, who critics say lacked proper experience for the job, for his performance in handling emergency aid. Brown admitted making some mistakes but placed the brunt of the blame on the Louisiana governor, the New Orleans mayor and even the Bush White House that appointed him.

Blanco on Tuesday had vehemently denied that she waited until the eve of the storm to order an evacuation of New Orleans. She said her order came on the morning of Aug. 27 — two days before the storm — resulting in 1.3 million people evacuating the city.

“Such falsehoods and misleading statements, made under oath before Congress, are shocking,” Blanco said in a statement Tuesday.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said Wednesday that while Brown made mistakes, so did others. “He can’t be the scapegoat. First responders are local and state, and the governor and mayor did a pathetic job of preparing their people for this horrific storm,” Shays said on NBC’s “Today” show.

Lawmakers were turning their attention to the lucrative Katrina contracts.

No competition for contracts?
In the weeks after the Aug. 29 storm, more than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion in contracts awarded by FEMA for Katrina work were handed out with little or no competition or had open-ended or vague terms that previous audits have cited as being highly prone to abuse.

They included contracts such as a $16 million deal involving Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root Services Inc. of Arlington, Va., that has been cited for overcharging the government for work in Iraq; and San-Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. Both companies have strong ties to the Bush administration.

Primary oversight falls to the agency IGs and the GAO, the auditing arm of Congress, but critics have said that isn’t enough. The various proposals, including ones from Republican Sen. Susan Collins and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., call for a specially appointed IG who would oversee all the various agencies’ work.

But in their testimony Wednesday, the inspectors general said additional review was unnecessary. The GAO and Homeland Security Department IG Richard Skinner have said they would look closely at the no-bid contracts that may have been unfairly awarded based on political connections.

Pentagon auditors also announced a broad-scale review of their defense contracts. The measures include sending teams of auditors to the Gulf Coast to monitor reconstruction efforts.

Investigators also will carefully examine whether federal employees have been abusing government-issued credit cards since their purchase limits were hastily raised to $250,000 to help pay for hurricane-related expenses.

Previous government audits have shown that the credit cards, which typically have a purchase limit of $2,500, were improperly used to pay for prostitutes, gambling activity and even breast implants. About 250,000 federal employees have the government credit cards.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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