Puerto Rico: Hurricane Maria relief officials arrested, accused of bribery and fraud

Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
Department of Homeland Security personnel deliver supplies to Santa Ana residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 5, 2017.

Two former officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the former president of an energy contractor were recently arrested, accused of bribery and wire fraud while trying to restore electricity to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico said Tuesday that the president of Cobra Acquisitions, Donald Keith Ellison, gave FEMA’s deputy regional director airline flights, hotel accommodations, personal security services and the use of a credit card.

In return, Ahsha Nateef Tribble “used any opportunity she had to benefit Cobra,” said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, including accelerating payments to the company and pressuring power authority officials to award it contracts.

“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane Maria,” Rodríguez said. “Instead, they decided to take advantage of the precarious conditions of our electric power grid and engaged in a bribery and honest services wire fraud scheme in order to enrich themselves illegally.”

Cobra Acquisitions and Cobra Energy are subsidiaries of Oklahoma City-based Mammoth Energy Services. in a statement, Peter Mirijanian, a Mammoth spokesman, said, "Mammoth is aware of and has been cooperating with the government’s investigation into Ms. Tribble and Mr. Ellison and will continue to do so.”

Hurricane Maria blasted through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, battering the island’s outdated power grid and knocking out electricity in parts of the U.S. commonwealth for nearly a year. The lack of power was a major challenge for Puerto Ricans recovering from the storm and a key factor in widespread fatalities in the wake of the hurricane. The death toll from the storm is 2,975, based on estimates from a study by George Washington University researchers.

Restoring power to Puerto Rico was slow and often fraught with controversy. Federal officials spent more than $3 billion to end the longest blackout in U.S. history and return the Puerto Rican power grid to pre-storm conditions. Puerto Rican officials estimate it will take an additional $26 billion to upgrade the island's energy grid, though that money has not been approved by Washington.  

Whitefish Energy, a small Montana firm hired early on in the effort, faced stinging criticism for overcharging for its services. Former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló eventually canceled the Whitefish contract, leaving more jobs for Cobra. Cobra was given contracts worth about $1.8 billion.

According to the indictment, Ellison lavished Tribble with helicopter tours over Puerto Rico, hotel rooms in Fort Lauderdale and first-class airfare from San Juan to New York. 

Ellison also gave a job to a friend of Tribble, Jovanda Patterson, who had been FEMA deputy chief of staff in Puerto Rico before resigning in July 2018 to work for Cobra Energy, according to the indictment.

In return, Tribble, who was FEMA’s primary leader in trying to restore electric power after Maria, lobbied to secure more contracts for Cobra, according to the indictment. 

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Tribble was arrested Monday in Florida and Ellison was detained in Oklahoma.

Rodríguez said that after an explosion at a power plant knocked out power to several towns in February 2018, Tribble pressured power authority officials to use Cobra rather than their own workforce. “She even told them that if they did not use Cobra, FEMA would not reimburse them,” the prosecutor said.

Patterson is accused of defrauding Cobra by telling the company her salary with FEMA was far larger than it was, and she was offered $160,000 a year to work for Cobra, Rodríguez said.

She allegedly was negotiating the job with Cobra when she participated for FEMA in part of Cobra’s vendor bid process for work in Puerto Rico.

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According to prosecutors, Tribble avoided using her FEMA email and cellphone, instead opting for private accounts and even a disposable prepaid cell number.

When investigators approached Ellison, he denied anything but a business relationship. They knew he had taken a helicopter ride with Tribble, but he denied that, prosecutors said.

The government seeks the forfeiture from Ellison of accounts holding more than $4 million, as well as a 40-foot catamaran.

If convicted of the charges of honest services wire fraud and disaster fraud, Trubble and Ellison could each face up to 30 years in prison.

U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., said in a statement that the charges suggest corruption was another factor in the flawed response to the hurricane damage.

“These charges, related to the Island’s beleaguered energy grid, are an appalling insult to the people of Puerto Rico who already endured the longest blackout in American history,” she said. “If proven, this misuse of funds suggests that, while our fellow citizens on the Island were dying from a lack of electricity, private companies stateside were plotting how to illicitly profit at taxpayers’ expense.”

Cecilio Ortiz García, of the National Institute for Energy and Island Sustainability at the University of Puerto Rico, said the arrests were another setback to the island’s slow recovery from Maria. Puerto Ricans’ trust in how officials rebuild the grid has been severely compromised, especially since FEMA officials were included in the indictment, he said.

“It’s just demoralizing,” García said. “It’s been one blow after another.”

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FEMA officials accused of bribery, fraud in Hurricane Maria relief