FBI arrests two FEMA officials, contractor over misuse of federal hurricane aid for Puerto Rico

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FBI officers arrested three people Tuesday for misuse of federal hurricane-reconstruction funds in Puerto Rico.

Among them were two officials at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the former president of a company that did work restoring the electrical system, Cobra Acquisitions.

Those arrested and charged were Ahsha Nateef Tribble, deputy administrator of FEMA region 2 who was assigned to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, Donald Keith Ellison, former Cobra president, and Jovanda Patterson, a former FEMA official in San Juan.

“We’ve long known that FEMA’s response to Maria was flawed and inadequate, but we are now learning it may also have been hampered by corruption,” said U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y. “I am thankful that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and the FBI are ferreting out these misdeeds.

“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,” Velázquez 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. We must do better by the people of Puerto Rico.”

In September 2017 Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico including the electrical system, operated by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which was — and still is — in the midst of restructuring more than $8 billion of bonds.

According to federal prosecutor Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Vélez, from October 2017 to April 2019 Tribble and Ellison developed an arrangement where Ellison would provide Tribble valuable gifts and, in exchange, Tribble would use her influence to direct large contracts to Cobra. Cobra was the main contractor for PREPA doing recovery work following Maria.

Cobra received two contracts totaling $1.8 billion for Hurricane Maria reconstruction. “Work performed under both contracts was paid through the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority with federal funds from FEMA,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Puerto Rico said in a statement.

The federal government approved a set amount for Puerto Rico’s reconstruction, and the use of more than necessary for the electrical system may have drawn money from other potentially worthwhile projects. Much of the federal hurricane reconstruction money hasn’t yet been disbursed.

In Puerto Rico Tribble had the titles senior lead and deputy director. She reported directly to the federal coordinating officer and was FEMA’s primary leader on the restoration of electrical power.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Ellison gave Tribble personal helicopter use, hotel accommodations, airfare, personal security services, and the use of a credit card.

Patterson is alleged to have participated in the corruption scheme.

FEMA released a statement saying: “FEMA’s mission is to help the American people before, during, and after disasters and our mission can only be accomplished by maintaining the public trust and confidence of those we serve. As such, the agency takes allegations of employee misconduct extremely seriously and holds all employees to the highest ethical standards — requiring them to protect government resources and place public service over private gain in everything they do.”

According to the El Nuevo Día news website, at a grand jury held this summer Foreman Electric's chief executive officer, Bront Bird, said his company offered its services to PREPA for almost half the cost of that Cobra bid. Yet the contract went to Cobra.

Ellison's attorney, William "Bill" Leone, said the ex-president of Cobra has "done nothing wrong. We're really looking forward to his day in court so we can clear his name.

"This indictment is really a strange attempt to criminalize a normal relationship," said Leone, co-head of dispute resolution and litigation at Norton Rose Fulbright.

Several of the allegations are based on hearsay, Leone said.

Tribble, Patterson and their lawyers couldn't be reached for immediate comment.

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PROMESA Corruption Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Puerto Rico