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Convicted felon's role in FEMA contracts questioned

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News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock

W. Ralph Wills III served time for federal tax fraud -- but that didn't keep three firms linked to him from snagging nearly half a billion dollars in contracts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in recent years.

Federal procurement regulations bar convicted felons from supervising federal contracts for private companies or serving as directors or designated officers of companies bidding on such contracts.

But there is a loophole in the regulations that allows government officials to ignore an individual's felony conviction if it occurred three or more years prior to his involvement in seeking a federal contract. The Tampa, Fla.-based Wills served a five-month federal prison term in 2003 for tax fraud. In 1997, he paid nearly $1 million in fines and restitution, and agreed never again to be associated with a brokerage or investment firm to settle multiple fraud charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Despite his record, Wills is no stranger to FEMA, especially when contracts for temporary trailers for disaster victims are on the agenda. A $42 million trailer maintenance contract the agency awarded Hendersonville, Tenn.-based firm SRS Inc. in 2008 remains in force even though Wills is a key corporate officer.

Wills was retained as a financial consultant in 2009 and became the firm's chief financial officer in 2011, according to Dewayne Scott, SRS's chief executive officer.

Scott told The Washington Examiner that he first met Wills in 2006 in Louisiana where both worked for separate companies on FEMA Hurricane Katrina recovery programs. He didn't know of the federal prison term or the SEC settlement when he retained Wills in 2009, Scott said.

Wills is also the registered agent for TL Industries, an Elkhart, Ind., firm that received $155.4 million in contracts from FEMA between 2008 and 2011 to buy housing units, according to USASpending.gov, and for another Elkhart outfit, Recreation by Design, which has been awarded a FEMA contract that experts said could be worth as much as $289 million.

Randall K. Rush, who did not return a reporter's repeated telephone calls seeking comment, owns both firms. Jimmy Chapman, a former FEMA consultant, told The Washington Examiner that he introduced Rush to Wills in 2003 after his prison release.

Together, the three firms linked to Wills have received $486 million from FEMA since 2008, according to federal spending data.

"Ralph always writes the bids," Chapman said. "I was working with them while he was writing the bids." Emails from a FEMA contractor are addressed jointly to Rush and Wills.

Wills also owns Tampa-based Simplifi Business, which is described on its website as "Professional Accountants and Business Advisors."

Simplifi is registered with the Small Business Administration as a qualified contractor for federal disaster housing contracts.

Georgia terminated his accountancy license in 2003. But Florida officials said that fact alone would not prevent Wills from doing business there.

Neither Wills nor FEMA officials returned calls about the federal contracts.

It is not clear if FEMA officials knew of Wills' criminal past when awarding contracts to companies where he held positions.

"A lot of contractors are business entities," said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight. "So you may have a convicted felon that runs that company. But that's not going to show up when they do the 'responsibility search' " of the federal Excluded Parties List.

The sheer magnitude of federal procurements makes oversight difficult, experts said.

"They are ... giving out so much money they can't track it," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. "There's plenty of money flowing around, no one is for certain where it's going except the recipients and insiders."

rpollock@washingtonexaminer.com

Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog reporting team.

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