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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Soto among Congress members urging probe of Whitefish contract with Puerto Rico

Posted By on Thu, Oct 26, 2017 at 1:17 PM

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto is among eight Democratic members of Congress who are urging the U.S. Department of the Interior to investigate a $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico's entire electrical infrastructure that was given to a two-person Montana firm with connections to the Trump administration.

Hurricane Maria left the 3.4 million people who live island without electricity for days. Weeks after the storm, about three-quarters of all residents on the U.S. territory remain without power.

The Orlando representative wrote the letter to Mary Kendall, deputy inspector general at the department, asking her to probe "any potential impropriety" in awarding the contract to Whitefish Energy. The small energy company is based in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's hometown in Montana, and Zinke is an acquaintance of Whitefish's CEO Andy Techmanski. USA Today reports Zinke's son also had a summer job at a construction site operated by Whitefish. The letter from Congress members also claims Whitefish is "primarily financed by a private equity firm that is run by a contributor to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump." Aside from Soto, the letter was signed by Reps. Robert Brady, Kathy Castor, Adriano Espaillat, Jared Huffman, Ted Lieu, James P. McGovern and José Serrano. The representatives say they're concerned Whitefish may have overstated its connections with the White House to get the contract.

"It is concerning that the arduous task of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s energy grid post Hurricane Maria – the biggest infrastructural rebuild in the United States since Hurricane Katrina – is being contracted to a small, inexperienced firm with ties to the Trump Administration," Soto says in a statement.

The contract between Whitefish and Puerto Rico's state-owned power authority, PREPA, was signed with no formal bidding process. BuzzFeed News reports company officials and federal representatives say Zinke "played no role in securing the contract." Whitefish, which is mostly relying on subcontractors to do the work of restoring the island's power lines, appears to have little experience in the arena. Before the contract with PREPA, Whitefish had only been awarded two Department of Energy contracts both totaling less than $2 million. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has also called for an audit of the contract awarded to the Montana company.

And, despite being a two-person business given the overwhelming task of returning power to an entire island, Whitefish officials apparently had time Wednesday to get into a public spat with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. After Cruz questioned the contract and asked for it to be voided on Twitter, Whitefish called her comments "disappointing and demoralizing," and issued a subtle threat to stop working completely.

Whitefish later apologized for the comments.

"On behalf of our employees, we would like to apologize for our comments earlier today, which did not represent who we are and how important this work is to help Puerto Rico's recovery," the company said in a statement. "We have a strong team on the ground, we are working hard and making good progress. Our goal is to continue to do all we can to help everyone in Puerto Rico in this time of need."

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