On Tuesday, Department of Justice prosecutors charged FEMA deputy regional administrator Ahsha Tribble with conspiracy to commit bribery and disaster fraud. Now we know why it took so long and cost so much to get the lights back on in Puerto Rico.
Donald Ellison, the president of the contracting firm Cobra Acquisitions LLC, had no trouble getting Tribble to sign nearly $2 billion in sweetheart deals. He treated her like a queen in an island paradise, with helicopter rides and luxury hotel rooms. According to the indictment, “Ellison provided Tribble with personal helicopter use, hotel accommodations, airfare, personal security services, and the use of a credit card.”
US Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez calls it “influencing, advising, and exerting pressure on FEMA.” She writes, “from October 2017 to April 2019, Tribble and Ellison developed a personal relationship wherein Ellison provided Tribble with things of value with the intent to influence Tribble’s performance of official acts.”
He even cut one of Tribble’s friends into the deal. “As part of Ellison’s pattern of providing things of value to Tribble, he also secured employment within COBRA’s affiliated companies for her friend, defendant Jovanda R. Patterson.”
Tribble and Ellison developed a “personal relationship,” the charging document notes. Besides allegedly sleeping with Ellison, “in exchange, Tribble performed official acts, including influencing, advising, and exerting pressure on PREPA and FEMA officials, in order to award restoration work to COBRA and accelerate payments to COBRA.”
After Hurricane Maria in 2017, FEMA spent at least $3.2 billion to repair Puerto Rico’s power grid. More than a year later, parts of the island still weren’t hooked back up.
What they cobbled together is so shoddy that another storm could knock them right back into the stone age. “It’s weaker today than before,” warns José F. Ortiz, chief executive of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
According to a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy, “$3.2 billion was spent between FEMA disbursements and expenses of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
The corps had to have a police escort to gain access to a stash of equipment that power company executives had hidden in the jungle. “Personnel from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency raided a PREPA-owned warehouse and seized electrification equipment that the agencies said the utility failed to distribute to contractors.”
At around the same time, local news reports said “utility workers restored power to exotic dance clubs ahead of scheduled restoration.” That was “after being given $5,000 each and passes to the clubs.”
“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane Maria. Instead, they decided to take advantage of the precarious conditions of our electric power grid and engaged in a bribery and honest services wire fraud scheme in order to enrich themselves illegally,” Rodríguez-Vélez asserts.
Ellison and a second FEMA official were also arrested and are charged in the indictment. Tribble is in a “non-duty, non-pay status,” a FEMA official disclosed, noting that FEMA “cannot comment on personnel matters and is cooperating with prosecutors.”
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