Rep. Gary Smith Jr., D-Norco, has been turning up in the press a lot lately but not entirely because of his work as a state legislator.
It’s being insinuated - without proof - that he might have “leaned” on FEMA to help blood-relatives get a series of lucrative trailer-building contracts for a family business that didn’t have the proper licensing until weeks after papers were signed and the ink was dry.
Since then the St. Rose company owned by the state legislator’s uncle, Glen Smith, and father, Gary Smith Sr., - Bourget's of the South - has received $106 million in contracts to provide trailers for people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.
And even though the licensing issue is under review by the 19th Judicial Court and also the Louisiana Recreational and Used Motor Vehicle Commission, the allegation that Rep. Smith helped Bourget's get the contracts, far from being addressed in an official arena, continues to bubble just under the surface.
And that, says Glen Smith, just isn’t fair. He says the FEMA contracts were above board, and Rep. Smith had nothing to do with them.
"How could a state representative be influential in getting contracts from a federal agency like FEMA in the first few weeks after a big storm like Katrina?" he asked the Herald-Guide in an exclusive interview.
"FEMA wouldn't even know he existed. It's true that Gary is one of our company attorneys, but there was nothing he could help with because these were all federal contracts."
And make no mistake, Rep. Smith denies that he tried to influence FEMA to issue the contracts to his dad's and uncle's firm.
He further notes that Bourget's has been in the disaster business for 20 years, indicating that his uncle, father and company staff knew more about getting FEMA contracts than he did.
Not only that, Glen Smith says, the company worked hand-in-glove with FEMA and other disaster relief personnel after Katrina hit - impressing them in the process.
Bourget's first contract with FEMA to provide 32 trailers for $893,000 was issued on September 15, 2005.
"We were there in the right place at the right time," says Glen Smith. "Because we performed so well, we got another order for 105 more trailers from FEMA."
Glen Smith acknowledges that he didn't have a license to sell new trailers at the time the contracts were accepted - a bone of contention with the Louisiana Recreational and Used Motor Vehicle Commission.
But the company did have a license to sell motorcycles, which, in turn, and by law, allows the firm to sell other used vehicles such as trailers. And Bourget’s corrected the problem with an amendment to the license that was submitted to the state and approved the same day.
Glen Smith says he addressed the issue as soon as he learned there was a problem - on Oct. 14, one month after the first order for 32 trailers from FEMA.
He pointed out that in emergency situations and in working with federal agencies, you do what you have to do help people in need without sweating over every detail.
"In an emergency, you never needed a license to work with federal agencies before," he explains.
He pointed out that Bourget’s competed with national companies for contracts shortly after the hurricane and got only a small amount of the business. One later contract was for 174 trailers that were obtained from other dealers.
The company’s final contract was for 6,000 trailers. The job was so big that Bourget's enlisted five manufacturers to help with the project.
"The total cost of the four contracts given to us by FEMA was $106 million,” says Glen Smith. “But remember: We were competing with other companies that got even bigger contracts."
He listed Precision Home as getting $287 million, Gulf Stream $520 million, Morgan Buildings $368 million, and Champion Homes with $80 million compared to Bourget’s $106 million.
"When you are in an emergency situation, the federal government goes by experience,” he says. “We got our contracts because of our experience."
Glen Smith said Bourget's weekly payroll was usually $429 million a week while fulfilling the 6,000-trailer contract. He had 223 people in Louisiana working on the project. Some of them hauled the trailers from the manufacturers in Indiana, a 30-hour round trip through the snow.
"We had them manufactured and delivered to Baton Rouge for $14,500 each,” he says.
Bourget's is one of several companies owned by the Smith family. Glen's father, Henry Smith, is treasurer of the companies. He is also president of the state Democratic party.
Glen Smith says his companies are ready to continue working under FEMA contract but because of "the hoopla," they haven't been able to get new orders even though his bids were low.
"All of Bourget's contracts were fulfilled ahead of schedule," he wants everyone to know.
"Prior experience, performance and luck is what it came down to in making us successful. We had the only game in town for two weeks."
The Smith family's first company, Maintenance Dredging Inc., was started by Henry Smith in the 1970s. Other companies started later were Aquatic Services Inc. in 1980, Fill Naturals Inc. in 1989, Magnolia Quarterbarges Inc. in 1991, Metro Investments Inc. in 1999, St. Rose Travel Center in 2000, MHI Investments in 2005, LMH Properties in 2005, M & A Group Inc. in 2006.
Glen Smith says the family’s businesses were involved in disaster recovery after Hurricane Betsy some 40 years ago. They also provided modular housing for army troops in Somalia during a skirmish there.
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|Photo: Marvin Nauman/FEMA photo|
|"We were there in the right place at the right time," says Glen Smith. FEMA delivered and set up about 500 travel trailers per day to help house Hurricane Katrina disaster victims.|