FEMA Officials Charged With Puerto Rico Hurricane Aid Fraud

By Michael Deibert | September 11, 2019

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials who oversaw the reconstruction of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and the former president of Cobra Acquisitions were arrested on fraud and conspiracy charges linked to recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria, according to federal prosecutors.

FEMA’s Regional Administrator, Ahsha Tribble, her former deputy, Jovanda Patterson, and Cobra’s former president Donald Keith Ellison were arrested and face a 15-count indictment alleging crimes including conspiracy to bribe public officials, false statements and fraud.

The trio “used Tribble’s position to benefit and illegally enrich themselves,” Rodriguez-Velez told reporters in San Juan on Tuesday.

“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane Maria,” she said in an emailed statement. “Instead, they decided to take advantage of the precarious conditions of our electric power grid.”

Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, and federal aid was slow to arrive. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans waited for months without electricity after the storm, and at least 3,000 people died. The delay occurred at the same time the trio were allegedly conspiring. The arrest of federal officials charged with overseeing the relief effort comes after President Donald Trump’s repeated criticism of alleged corruption by Puerto Rican politicians.

While Trump has claimed that Puerto Rico has received $91 billion in aid, U.S. lawmakers have allocated about $42.5 billion in disaster aid so far, and about $14 billion had been spent on the island, according to federal data.

The storm hit just a few months after the commonwealth filed a record $74 billion bankruptcy following a more than decade-long recession. Public services had already been hollowed out by budget cuts. On Tuesday, Rodriguez-Velez described the alleged offenses as “reprehensible, more so in light of PREPA’s and Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.”

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the territory’s government-owned power company gave two contracts totaling $1.8 billion to Cobra to help repair the island’s power grid in the aftermath of the storm. Rodriguez-Velez outlined what she said were gifts Ellison had doled out to Tribble, including airline tickets and use of a personal helicopter, in exchange for information that allegedly helped Cobra secure the contracts and Tribble’s influencing of FEMA and PREPA officials. Patterson left her job at FEMA last year to go to work for Cobra.

“Corruption in the ranks of the DHS and FEMA will not be tolerated,” said James Long, special agent in charge of the major frauds and corruption unit.

Tribble was assigned to work in Puerto Rico as part of FEMA’s response to Hurricane Maria and served as the chief official in charge of power and infrastructure from October 2017 to September 2018, a period during which millions of Puerto Ricans went without power.

“Mammoth is aware of and has been cooperating with the government’s investigation into Ms. Tribble and Mr. Ellison and will continue to do so,” Peter Mirijanian, a Mammoth spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.

FEMA spokesperson Alex Bruner said the agency can’t comment on personnel matters, but is “fully cooperating” with the federal investigators. Neither Ellison’s lawyer, Bill Leone, nor Tribble’s lawyer, Bridget Moore, immediately returned calls seeking comment.

“There is a serious corruption problem that goes beyond the island,” said Miguel Angel Rosario Lozada, a historian at National University College in Puerto Rico. “They arrested federal officials who orchestrated a corruption scheme that affected the lives of thousands of Puerto Ricans.”

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