Two former officials with the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the previous head of an energy company were arrested on Tuesday (September 10) and charged in a federal investigation of corruption related to Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria. The investigation focused on bribes used to obtain $1.8 billion in contracts to repair the island’s electrical grid, which was damaged by the storm.
Federal authorities arrested Ahsha Tribble, FEMA's former deputy regional administrator, her chief of staff Jovanda Patterson and Donald Keith Ellison, former president of energy company Cobra Acquisitions. They were charged with a total of 15 counts of corruption. These include, reports CBS News, conspiracy to commit bribery, wire fraud, disaster fraud and making false statements to federal agents.
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. The powerful storm destroyed the island’s power grid and led to a total blackout and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. As a result, government officials were tasked with hiring a company to fix and upgrade the grid.
The project—valued at $1.8 billion over two contracts—was awarded to Cobra Acquisitions to work with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). It was paid for by PREPA, using federal funds provided by FEMA.
Based on the investigation, those contracts were obtained through illegal means. According to CBS News:
From October 2017 to April 2019, Ellison provided "things of value" to Tribble to influence [her] decisions to award Cobra with restoration work, according to the Justice Department. Prosecutors claimed that Ellison provided Tribble with personal helicopter use and use of a credit card and that he secured employment within Cobra for Patterson.
It took 22 months to fully restore electricity to Puerto Rico. PREPA executives told CNN that part of this extended time was the result of having just one company—Cobra—as the central company managing the repairs. CNN also reports that Tribble is now on "non-duty, non-pay status" at FEMA and that the agency is cooperating with prosecutors.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez said in a statement: “These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane Maria. 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.”