The Slatest

FEMA Official Arrested for Allegedly Taking Bribes From Puerto Rico Power Grid Contractor

An employee of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority repairs a power line damaged by Hurricane Maria.
An employee of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority repairs a power line damaged by Hurricane Maria in April 2018 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Jose Jimenez Tirado/Getty Images

A top official in the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been arrested and charged with taking bribes from the president of a utility company that landed a $1.8 billion federal contract to repair Puerto Rico’s power grid after Hurricane Maria, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday.

According to the New York Times, federal authorities arrested Ahsha Tribble, FEMA’s deputy administrator for the region that includes New York, New Jersey, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, as well as a FEMA deputy chief of staff who worked under Tribble. Donald Keith Ellison, the former president of Cobra Acquisitions, was also arrested. All three face charges related to conspiring to defraud the federal government. According to the Wall Street Journal, Tribble had been placed on administrative leave in May as authorities investigated the case.

According to prosecutors, the bribery took the form of gifts from Cobra’s president. Ellison allegedly gave Tribble a helicopter tour, airplane tickets, and stays in hotel rooms, among other favors. The two had a personal relationship in which they socialized outside work contexts and traveled together, sometimes sharing a room. Tribble would allegedly reward Ellison with influence inside FEMA.

After the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, reported an explosion in 2018, for example, Tribble allegedly told PREPA it needed to hire Cobra for the repairs even though the utility’s officials said they could do the work on their own. PREPA officials told Tribble that they would lose money hiring a contractor for the work, but she allegedly warned that PREPA could risk losing promised reimbursement from FEMA. According to the authorities, no one from PREPA was implicated in the charges.

After Hurricane Maria in September 2017, recovery efforts were marked by a different scandal involving the contractor Whitefish Energy. The company, which was based in former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s small hometown in Montana and which was only two years old at the time, reportedly charged exorbitant salaries for its linemen. The company, financed by a major Trump donor, had only two full-time employees at the time it landed its $300 million contract. Puerto Rico’s governor at the time, Ricardo Rosselló, canceled the contract in the face of the controversy.*

As the details of the Whitefish contract captured national attention, Cobra’s deal, which was similar to Whitefish’s, was less scrutinized. But it still raised red flags.

Some parts of Puerto Rico were left without power for more than 11 months after the hurricane struck. The storm’s death toll, which swelled in the weeks after the storm hit as residents struggled with access to proper medical care, is thought to have been in the thousands.

Correction, Sept. 10, 2019: This post originally misspelled Ricardo Rosselló’s last name.