The senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee said yesterday that the government is vastly overpaying for hundreds of portable classrooms purchased for Mississippi schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and that auditors should investigate.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) charged in a letter to the Homeland Security Department's inspector general that the government is paying $88,000 per mobile classroom under a $39.5 million deal but that the classrooms should cost no more than $42,000 apiece. The contract is with Akima Site Operations LLC, a firm that does business as an Alaska Native Corporation. The designation allows the government more flexibility in giving it no-bid contracts.

Thompson also suggested in his letter that Akima "does not have any particular expertise in constructing or installing portable classrooms or other temporary structures."

Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Michael H. Logue said yesterday that Akima is getting the job done and that the price is reasonable. Logue said the lower price cited by Thompson does not take into account the difficult conditions and the speed needed.

"We've got 70 school districts where the schools have either been totally obliterated or seriously damaged. There is no school in south Mississippi to speak of," Logue said. "These things represent classrooms and libraries and cafeterias." Logue said Akima was chosen because it had a pre-existing Army contract for related work.

John Wood, president and chief executive of parent company Akima Management Services Inc., said Thompson's allegations appear to be based on data from a Mississippi-based small-business owner, Paul Adams of Adams Home Center. Wood said Adams had a chance to be a subcontractor on Akima's contract but didn't bid. "He has a gross misunderstanding, based on the allegations he's making, relative to our contract," said Wood, whose company is Alaska-based, though its main offices are in North Carolina.

Adams wrote in a letter to Thompson earlier this week that Akima is "a massive company that has taken advantage of us, a little company in Mississippi."

Thompson said in an interview that he's concerned not enough local firms are being given federal work. "If we're going to rebuild Mississippi, we're going to have to use Mississippi companies and let some of that money return to the state," he said.

Tamara Faulkner, spokeswoman for the inspector general, said her office had received the letter. "The inspector general has pledged to review every large contract, and this appears to be a very large contract," Faulkner said.