Federal auditors have challenged the legality of a contract to conduct a mock evacuation at the Shoreham nuclear plant in New York as new questions surfaced about the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) made the award.

FEMA awarded the $81,250 contract without competitive bidding to Theodore Barry & Associates, a Los Angeles consulting firm. FEMA officials acknowledged yesterday that a FEMA branch chief overseeing the contract is a longtime friend of the executive at Barry & Associates who is the project manager.

The contract is critical to the owners of the troubled Long Island plant, who cannot obtain a full-scale operating license without conducting an emergency evacuation exercise. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and New York officials have accused FEMA of violating the law in an attempt to stage the exercise, which state and local authorities -- who oppose Shoreham -- have refused to conduct.

The General Accounting Office, in a letter to Markey's staff, called the FEMA contract "questionable."

The GAO said "it would not be possible to conclude" that FEMA had a legitimate explanation for the award.

Robert S. Wilkerson, chief of FEMA's technological hazards division, was listed as the contact person on the contract when it was awarded in September.

Wilkerson is a longtime friend of William J. Stokes, who is managing the Shoreham job for Barry & Associates. Stokes attended Wilkerson's wedding about a year ago, and the two men worked together on nuclear projects several years ago in Florida, where Wilkerson was a state official and Stokes a private contractor.

Last February, Wilkerson helped approve another noncompetitive award to Barry & Associates, for $24,375, for work on the evacuation plan. That contract, which Wilkerson directly supervised for several months, called for Stokes to be paid $975 a day.

FEMA spokeswoman Carolyn Perroni said no favoritism was involved in the contracts and that Wilkerson had alerted the agency to his relationship with Stokes. Of the current award, she said: "There's no question that contract was awarded appropriately and consistent with the regulations."

Perroni said the first contract was small enough not to require competitive bidding and that Wilkerson was later replaced as the project supervisor because he "was concerned about any potential conflict."

Perroni said Wilkerson "informally" removed himself from the second contract award but had signed no papers to that effect. She conceded that Wilkerson continues to be involved in overseeing the contract but said he is not managing it or rating the company's performance.

Internal FEMA documents show that Wilkerson has reviewed the current contract in a series of meetings and phone calls, including some in which he and Stokes were the only participants.

Wilkerson and Stokes could not be reached for comment yesterday. Douglas Bennett, vice president of Barry & Associates, had no immediate comment but has said his firm is well qualified for the job.

The controversy follows federal investigations into noncompetitive contracts, fraudulent billing and other abuses at FEMA during the tenure of former director Louis O. Giuffrida, who resigned in September. Markey has urged the new FEMA director, Julius W. Becton, to cancel the Shoreham award.

FEMA justified the contract under a legal exemption that waives competitive bidding if the situation is of such "an unusual and compelling urgency" that the government could be "seriously injured."

The agency said it could potentially be sued by Shoreham's owner, the Long Island Lighting Co., for financial losses incurred while the plant remains shut.

But the GAO said: "Absent some further explanation, it would not be possible to conclude that FEMA reasonably found that the potential lawsuit constituted serious injury to the government so as to justify a noncompetitive award." The GAO added that Barry & Associates does not have "qualifications so unique that the noncompetitive award could be justified solely on that basis."

Perroni said FEMA has rejected the firm's request to increase the contract to $141,250.

On the first award, FEMA claimed a different exemption that allows the government to maintain essential services in case of national emergency.

Markey told Becton in a recent letter that "it is difficult to believe" this explanation.

Wilkerson signed numerous letters related to the first contract, including one that cited Stokes' work in developing an agenda.

In Suffolk County, N.Y., where the $4 billion plant is located, officials adopted legislation this week that would require county approval before FEMA could stage the scheduled Feb. 13 exercise.