The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel
November 7, 2017
By THE FORT LAUDERDALE SUN SENTINEL
The last thing U.S. territory needs is the whiff of scandal involving aid efforts.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.4 million people, continues to struggle with the largest power outage in our nation’s history. Nearly six weeks after Hurricane Maria decimated its power grid, 70 percent of Puerto Rico remains in the dark.
Hospitals are running on generators. People still struggle to find food and drinking water. And most schools and businesses remain closed.
Amid its cries for help, the last thing Puerto Rico needs is the whiff of scandal involving federal relief funds. Yet that’s exactly what happened with the so-called Whitefish contract.
It’s anyone’s guess how Whitefish Energy, a small Montana company that employed only two full-time employees the day Hurricane Maria struck, obtained a $300 million, no-bid contract to restore power on the island.
It’s also hard to understand why Puerto Rico failed to activate a mutual-aid agreement that would have brought a cavalry of utility companies in from other states. The head of Puerto Rico’s power authority, Ricardo Ramos, says there wasn’t the money to activate the mutual-aid plan.
But the Puerto Rico Power Authority, best known as PREPA, was able to give Whitefish a reported $3.7 million upfront payment, according to CNN and other media outlets.
That Whitefish is based in the Montana hometown of U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is certainly raising eyebrows. The Washington Post reports that Zinke, a former Montana congressman, is an acquaintance of Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski, and his son had a summer job at a Whitefish construction site.
None of this looks good.
Zinke’s department oversees U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. He has denied any involvement in the contract. The White House says Washington had nothing to do with how this contract got awarded, that Puerto Rico made the call.
The U.S. Homeland Security’s Inspector General and the House Natural Resources Committee are rightly investigating how this happened. Anyone with half a brain could see such a sizable job needed to go to a sizable company with a proven track record.
Plus, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it had questioned the contract’s high repair costs and warned Puerto Rico it might not get reimbursed, The New York Times reported.
Amid growing controversy, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello pulled the plug on Whitefish, effective in 30 days. He also asked the governors of Florida and New York to do what should have been done in the first place — help activate the utility mutual-aid plan and send brigades of electrical workers to Puerto Rico, pronto.
You can’t blame Puerto Ricans for leaving, even those who wish they could stay. Who wants to live without electricity for months, maybe years? For without electricity, you can’t power schools, supermarkets and water treatment plants — the staples of a normal life.
The sooner Puerto Rico gets electricity restored, the better it will be for everyone.
Puerto Ricans deserve our help, but we want to know the money is being spent properly. So enough of the shenanigans.