San Juan mayor calls for canceling 'alarming' contract for Puerto Rican power repairs

A Whitefish Energy Holdings helicopter on its way to repair power line towers in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)
A Whitefish Energy Holdings helicopter on its way to repair power line towers in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

WASHINGTON — A $300 million contract to fix Puerto Rico’s hurricane-damaged power grid that was given to a tiny Montana company should be voided, said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who said the process of awarding the no-bid contract raised ethical and legal questions. In an interview with Yahoo News on Tuesday evening, Cruz described the contract as “alarming.”

As of Wednesday morning, 75 percent of Puerto Rico does not have power as a result of damage from Hurricane Maria. The storm hit the island, which is a U.S. territory, on Sept. 20.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority signed the contract with Montana’s Whitefish Energy last month. At the time, the firm had just two full-time employees. The contract was awarded without a competitive bidding process. Cruz, the mayor of Puerto Rico’s largest city, described the Montana company as inadequate and said there appears to be a lack of “due diligence” behind the contract.

“The contract should be voided right away, and a proper process which is clear, transparent, legal, moral and ethical should take place,” Cruz said.

“It seems like what the Puerto Rican people are going to be paying for, or the American people are going to be paying for, is an intermediary that doesn’t know what is at stake here and that really has to subcontract everything,” she said of Whitefish. “What we need is somebody that can get the job done and that has the expertise to get the job done.”

Cruz, who has been a persistent critic of President Trump’s handling of the storm damage on the island, said Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are facing a “life-and-death situation” more than a month after the hurricane made landfall.

“Most of the people in Puerto Rico still don’t have any electricity or any energy. And we’re not talking about wanting energy to have air conditioners. We’re talking about having energy to use it as a motor for our economic development, to have appropriate surgical facilities, to be able to have our children go back to school,” she said.

According to the Washington Post, Whitefish Energy’s chief executive, Andy Techmanski, has links to Trump’s secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke. The firm is based in Zinke’s hometown, and one of Zinke’s sons previously worked at one of Techmanski’s construction sites. Both the secretary’s office and Whitefish deny Zinke played any role in the firm’s Puerto Rico contract. Zinke’s office told the Post that Whitefish is based in a small town where “everybody knows everybody.” Whitefish also said it is up to the task of repairing the power grid and that, as of Monday, it had 280 workers in Puerto Rico.

In addition to seeing Whitefish’s deal “voided,” Cruz said she wants to see a “bidding process” and greater transparency for other rebuilding contracts on the island.

“Every contract that comes out needs to be a public document. … This is one of the things that we are asking for, and the due diligence that goes towards that contract also needs to be public documents,” said Cruz. She added, “Not just for the Puerto Rican people to see. This is U.S. taxpayers’ money. I don’t care if the dollar comes from a Puerto Rican or from a Hawaiian. It’s a dollar.”

Along with the lack of power on the island, more than 25 percent of Puerto Ricans do not have reliable access to drinking water.

“I’ve seen people drinking from creeks, mothers just holding their babies saying, ‘Please help me,’” Cruz said. “The federal response has been inadequate. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz outside a temporary government center. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz outside a temporary government center. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Puerto Rico was facing a fiscal crisis before the storm damage. Cruz said she wants to see the island’s cities, which had to cut their budgets, receive money from disaster-relief appropriations by Congress. Cruz is also seeking repeal of the Jones Act, which requires using American-owned and -operated vessels for goods shipped between U.S. ports. After criticism, the Trump administration granted Puerto Rico a 10-day waiver from the law. Critics have argued that the island should get a longer extension to expedite aid.

“Let’s get some of the bureaucracy out of the way,” said Cruz.

In the last week, Cruz said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s delivery of food and water was improving and that the Department of Homeland Security helped her navigate that process. But she said the federal response still has a long way to go to meet the needs of the Puerto Rican people.

“Is it where it’s supposed to be? No. If I hadn’t had the private donations and the NGOs’ donations, I couldn’t feed people,” she said.

Cruz said many Americans have come from the mainland to volunteer with the relief effort on Puerto Rico.

“I want to make sure that people understand that we know the difference between President Trump and the good-hearted people and the good-natured people of the United States. We know they’re not one and the same,” said Cruz.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York City Democrat who was the first Puerto Rican-born woman elected to Congress, has said she believes the island’s residents are being treated differently from other U.S. citizens because they are predominantly Latino. Cruz agreed with that assessment.

“It’s because we’re a colony of the United States to begin with. … And people have danced around that word and they don’t want to say it. … We are a colony of the United States,” Cruz said, adding, “Yes, there is racism. There is discrimination. Mr. Trump may have the most powerful job in the world, but that does not make him a respectful person.”

Cruz described the president as “the face of inefficiency, bureaucracy and ineffectiveness.” Trump gave himself high marks for the federal response to the storm damage in Puerto Rico. He previously responded to the mayor’s critiques on Twitter, where he accused her of having “poor leadership ability” and claimed she was “told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Critics have suggested Cruz’s attacks on Trump’s hurricane response are motivated by a desire to run for governor of Puerto Rico. Cruz belongs to the island’s Popular Democratic Party and said she is allied with the mainland Democratic Party. She added that her criticism of Trump is not partisan and that she has no intention of running for governor.

Cruz said she does “not care what Mr. Trump thinks about me.”

“This is not about his ego. This is about his unwillingness to help the people of Puerto Rico and to do his job,” said Cruz. “He can come at me all he wants. I’m here. Bring it on.”

Update (2:38 pm): Whitefish Energy responded to Yulin on Wednesday afternoon with a tweet calling her comments “disappointing.”

“We share the mayor’s frustration with the situation on Puerto Rico, but her comments are misplaced. Whifefish has more than 300 workers on the island and that number is growing daily. We are making progress and doing work when others are not even here,” the tweet said. “We find her comments to be very disappointing and demoralizing to the hundreds of people on our team that have left their homes and families and have come here to help the people of Puerto Rico.”

Yulin responded with a series of her own tweets where she highlighted the fact others, including members of Congress, have raised concerns about the company. She also pointed out that the Whitefish workers are paid and not volunteering their time.

“If @WhitefishEnergy feels that asking for transparency is ‘misplaced,’ what are they afraid we will find?” she wrote.

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