Jeb Bush and the Making of a $236 Million Federal Contract

E-mails show how a direct appeal from a Republican donor helped secure a multimillion-dollar federal contract.

Carnival Cruise Lines' Sensation, foreground, passes by its sistership Ecstasy at the Port of Miami in this undated file photo. On Saturday, September 3, 2005 Carnival announced that Sensation, Ecstasy and the Holiday, another Carnival ship, would be pulled from regular cruise service for six months and chartered to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide temporary housing for Hurricane Katrina victims. The Ecstasy and Sensation are to base in Galveston, Texas, while Holiday is to port in Mobile, Alabama.

Photographer: Andy Newman Source: Carnival Cruise Lines/HO via Bloomberg News

Republican donor Ric Cooper had a straight line to Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and days after Hurricane Katrina used the access to help secure a $236 million deal that Democrats later called a “boondoggle contract,” according to a trove of e-mails released last week by the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge.

The chummy exchange began with a previously unreported direct appeal from Cooper on behalf of Carnival Cruise Line two days after Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast. “None of us have any idea how to reach out to FEMA or whoever is appropriate,” wrote Cooper in an Aug. 31, 2005, e-mail to Bush. “I decided to do my usual 'I'll give Jeb a heads-up.'” The Miami-based company wanted a federal contract for “two or three” of their ships to be used in the response effort, he wrote. 

Cooper, who at the time was working in Miami at an advertising agency that Carnival used, said in his e-mail that the ships could provide housing for between 6,000 and 10,000 people and “could feed if needed as well.” Once in place, the ships could stay for weeks or months, he offered. “They would minimize costs involved,” pledged Cooper, who during the 2004 election cycle had donated $50,000 to the Republican National Committee to help re-elect the governor's brother, President George W. Bush.

What followed became public as Democrats began to investigate the Katrina response in early 2006. Jeb Bush, who was famously responsive to e-mail as governor, replied to Cooper within 13 minutes.“I will pass on to Mike Brown,” Bush wrote, referring to the then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “I can't believe they haven't asked as of yet but Mike will respond quickly.”

About three hours later, Brown responded to Bush and Cooper with his cell phone number. “Ric, thanks for the note that Jeb sent,” the FEMA director wrote. “I personally think this is a great idea.”

Within days, three Carnival ships steamed to the Gulf Coast. It wasn't a happy ending: The ships sat half empty. Use of them turned out to be rather expensive, and lawmakers used the contract as an example of post-Katrina waste. “This boondoggle contract, which comes to an end this week, has cost federal taxpayers an enormous amount to provide temporary six-month housing aboard Carnival's ships,” Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, wrote in a February 2006 letter to Jeb Bush.  

Waxman calculated that the contract cost taxpayers almost $240,000 to shelter a family of five. “At this price, the federal government could have built permanent homes for the families,” Waxman wrote.

Cooper couldn't be reached for comment. Bush's spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, noted that Carnival Cruise Line is headquartered in Florida and downplayed the amount of help the governor provided. “Governor Bush made the introduction on behalf of the Florida-based tourism corporation,” she said. “He was not involved beyond that point.”

Carnival representative Jennifer de la Cruz said the company didn't score a windfall from the deal. “The contracts were constructed in a way to ensure that they were profit-neutral for Carnival and the company made only what it would have made with the ships in service,” she said, adding that Carnival had been selected after a bidding process. “After evaluation of the bids, the U.S. Government elected to charter three ships for utilization by FEMA.”

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