ThinkProgress

Utility company restoring Puerto Rico’s electrical grid starts Twitter feud with local mayor

A brigade from the Electric Power Authority repairs distribution lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in the Cantera community of San Juan, Puerto Rico. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

The tiny, Trump-affiliated energy firm charged with re-building Puerto Rico’s devastated electrical grid is now threatening to pull out of the island over a spat with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

In an interview with Yahoo News on Wednesday, Cruz was critical of the fact that Whitefish Energy had been awarded a $300 million no-bid contract to restore the island’s power grid. “It seems like what the Puerto Rican people are going to be paying for…is an intermediary that doesn’t know what is at stake here and really has to subcontract everything,” she said. “What we need is somebody that can get the job done and has the expertise to get the job done.”

Whitefish Energy responded that Cruz’s comments were “misplaced”, that the company had more than 300 workers on the island, and that “[the] number is growing daily.”

Cruz responded responded by asking why her calls for transparency were “misplaced”, to which Whitefish Energy fired back, asking whether she wanted them to send back the 84 linemen working on repairing the power lines in San Juan.

Last week, Weather.com reported that the Montana-based Whitefish Energy, which boasts just two full-time employees, had been awarded the contract — which was 230 times the size of their previous largest contract, a $1.3 million to deal to work on a 5 mile electrical transmission line in Arizona. Experts have questioned why such a small firm was awarded such a large contract.

“The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why [the utility] would go to Whitefish,” former Energy Department senior official Susan Tierney told the Washington Post. “I’m scratching my head wondering how it all adds up.”

It was later revealed that Whitefish Energy had ties to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is also from Whitefish, Montana. Zinke’s son previously worked as a flagger at one of the CEO’s worksites. The founder of one of the private-equity firms that backs Whitefish Energy, Joe Colonnetta, also contributed nearly $50,000 to Trump’s electoral campaign. His wife, Kimberly, also gave $33,400 to the Republican National Committee.

To make matters even more interesting, the Whitefish subcontractors currently working in Puerto Rico were never actually needed, since states and municipalities can contact a “mutual aid network” in the event of a natural disaster. However Puerto Rico did not take this step, and now Whitefish Energy is charging the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) $412 a day per worker.

Partly because of the shady background by which Whitefish Energy obtained the contract, Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló is calling for an audit into the company. As of Wednesday, 75 percent of Puerto Rico remains without power.