Puerto Rico governor: Scrap Whitefish energy grid deal

Puerto Rico governor: Scrap Whitefish energy grid deal

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More than five weeks after Storm Maria, most Puerto Ricans are still in the dark

Puerto Rico’s governor has called for a controversial contract given to a tiny Montana firm to help reconstruct the island’s power grid to be cancelled.

Ricardo Rossello also said he wanted to see repair teams brought from New York and Florida to aid with reconstruction efforts in the wake of Storm Maria.

The contract was given to Whitefish Energy, which has little experience of work on such a scale, without a public bid process.

Several inquiries are under way.

More than 70% of people on the US-controlled island were without power as of Sunday morning – more than five weeks after the powerful hurricane devastated the power grid.

Mr Rossello said on Sunday he had asked the board of governors of the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (Prepa) to cancel the Whitefish contract.

“There can be no distraction to alter the commitment to restore the power system as quickly as possible,” he said.

The governor said he had instructed Prepa to “immediately coordinate with the states of Florida and New York to reinforce brigades” that are currently rebuilding the grid on the island.

Concerns were raised about why Puerto Rican authorities had not requested “mutual aid” from other public power authorities, as is typical during disasters in the US.

The White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) distanced themselves from the deal last week.

The company has its headquarters in the town of Whitefish, the hometown of US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Mr Zinke has denied any involvement or wrongdoing.

  • White House distances itself from Whitefish power grid deal
  • Puerto Rico to audit power contract for Montana firm

Whitefish has said that it secured the $300m (£228m) deal in a legitimate manner.

The company did not immediately respond to a BBC request for comment on the governor’s statement.

Prepa also did not immediately return a request for comment on the latest developments.

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Media captionHurricane Maria: Puerto Rico faces long road to recovery

Fema has denied allegations by Prepa, the US territory’s main utility, that it reviewed the deal.

The contract states that “Prepa hereby represents and warrants that Fema has reviewed and approved of this Contract”.

In a statement on Thursday, Fema said: “Any language in any contract between Prepa and Whitefish that states Fema approved that contract is inaccurate.”

  • Whitefish Energy regrets Twitter spat with San Juan mayor

Fema also said it had “significant concerns” with how Prepa had procured the contract and had “not confirmed whether the contract prices [were] reasonable”.

Critics have queried why Puerto Rican authorities did not seek aid from other public utility companies – as is customary during disasters.

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More than five weeks after Storm Maria most light on the island is generator-driven

It is unclear what will happen if Fema refuses to pay.

Walt Green, a former director of the US National Center for Disaster Fraud, told BBC News it was “impossible” to say at this stage who was responsible for costs.

“Any dispute may result in appeals, administrative hearings and lawsuits,” he added.

Puerto Rican authorities initially said Fema would pay for the deal.

They are now seeking to assure the public there is “nothing illegal” about the contract.

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Little-known Whitefish Energy has raised eyebrows for possible links to the Trump administration

Prepa and the Puerto Rican government are saddled with massive debts. The power authority declared bankruptcy in July.

The US House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Caribbean island, is also scrutinising the contract.

On Friday, top Democrats from that panel and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee sent a letter asking the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to launch an investigation.

The correspondence follows similar requests from other members of Congress to the interior department’s inspector general.

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