Less than one week after a small energy company based in Montana signed a contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid, the mayor of San Juan called for canceling the agreement.
In an interview with Yahoo! News, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz called the agreement signed between Whitefish Energy and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority “alarming,” adding that the process of awarding the no-bid, $300 million contract raised ethical and legal questions.
“The contract should be voided right away, and a proper process which is clear, transparent, legal, moral and ethical should take place,” she said to the news outlet. “It seems like what the Puerto Rican people are going to be paying for, or the American people are going to be paying for, is an intermediary that doesn’t know what is at stake here and that really has to subcontract everything. What we need is somebody that can get the job done and that has the expertise to get the job done.”
Cruz’s concerns come amid issues some members of Congress have regarding Whitefish. When Hurricane Maria struck the island nation last month, Whitefish had just two full-time employees. It’s since sent hundreds of subcontractors to work around the clock to restore power in Puerto Rico. In addition to that, the company was founded just two years ago and it’s based in the same town where Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is from (Whitefish, Montana).
Since the announcement of the contract, Zinke and Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski have both acknowledged that they know each other, but only because Whitefish is a small town where “everybody knows everybody.” The two said their relationship never played a role in obtaining the contract.
Regardless, both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for an investigation into the contract. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said in a statement to USA Today via his spokesperson Parish Braden that a full congressional review was needed.
The size and unknown details of this contract raise numerous questions. This is one of many things the committee is taking a close look at as it continues to work with the resident commissioner, governor’s office and oversight board to ensure Puerto Rico’s recovery is robust, effective and sustained.
Whitefish, which has been active on social media with the work it’s performing in the country, released a statement in response to Cruz’s criticism. It said the company shares the same frustration the mayor has, “but her comments are misplaced.”
“We are making progress and doing work when others are not even here,” the statement read. “We find her comments to be very disappointing and demoralizing to the hundreds of people on our team that have left their homes and families and have come here to help the people of Puerto Rico.”
The tensions between the two parties didn’t end there, though. Cruz tweeted out the Whitefish statement with a comment saying: “You would think I am the only one in the world that has commented on this. What is it about women having an opinion that irritates some?”
Cruz followed up the tweet with another implying that Whitefish may be “afraid what we will find” about the contract when it gets examined.
Whitefish commented back with a tweet of its own, saying they have “44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city and 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”
Cruz then accused the company of not treating her city with the “diligence it deserves,” adding it has political motivations.
Whitefish has been working for PREPA to repair the electrical grid since September 26, and the company has been providing updates to the power restoration effort on its social media accounts. When Maria hit the island, it had just two full-time employees and a single page on its website featuring an image of linemen working from a helicopter.
The company announced October 24 that it’s continued to make progress in restoring the electricity by digging holes and installing new equipment.
But it’s Whitefish’s makeup and the process of obtaining the contract which has caused alarm for some.
Techmanski told The Post during an interview that his company emerged as the lead candidate to land the Puerto Rico contract from internal discussions with PREPA before and after the storm hit. There was no formal bidding process. Instead, he said that he’d been in talks with the utility prior to Maria and discussed possible scenarios in the recovery effort if the damage was bad.
According to The Economist, the typical process in emergency situations like these involve states and municipalities contacting a “mutual aid network” which then mobilizes as many repairmen as needed. However, as Mike Hyland of the American Public Power Association told The Economist, that never happened.
“Puerto Rico never said ‘Hey, we need crews,” Hyland told the publication.
In addition, Whitefish’s primary investor has contributed significant amounts of money to President Donald Trump‘s 2016 presidential campaign.
Whitefish is a division of Comtrafo S.A., an energy equipment distribution company based in Brazil. Its primary investor, HBC Investments, was founded by Joe Colonnetta, who was a “major” donor to Trump’s campaign.
Contribution records obtained by The Daily Beast indicated that Colonnetta gave $27,000 to Trump’s primary election bid and another $20,000 to the Trump Victory Super PAC during the general election. After Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in November 2016, Colonnetta’s wife, Kimberly, gave another $33,400 to the Republican National Committee.
Since Puerto Rico was hit by Maria, Cruz has spoken out against Trump and his handling of the storm damage.
“Most of the people in Puerto Rico still don’t have any electricity or any energy,” she told Yahoo! during an interview. “And we’re not talking about wanting energy to have air conditioners. We’re talking about having energy to use it as a motor for our economic development, to have appropriate surgical facilities, to be able to have our children go back to school.”
As of October 25, about 75 percent of Puerto Ricans are without power and 25 percent don’t have access to drinking water.