Two congressional committees and a federal watchdog have launched an investigation into the $300 million no-bid contract to repair Puerto Rico’s decimated power grid that was awarded to a tiny energy company from the hometown of Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Whitefish Energy, which is based in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown in Montana, is only two years old and had just two employees when the territory’s utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, signed the $300 million contract.
On the day Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory, Whitefish Energy had only two full-time employees and held a resumé which included repairing a few miles of electrical line in Arizona, according to The Washington Post. The company now has 280 workers on the island, a majority of whom are subcontractors.
Another issue that has raised questions is the requested pay scale for workers. Puerto Rico is paying a rate of $330/hour for a site supervisor, along with $332/night for accommodations and $80/day for food.
According to Fortune, a utility repair worker would normally earn $50/hour. Journeymen linemen repairing the damage from Hurricane Irma in Florida made $75/hour for regular work and up to $100/hour for overtime.
The Whitefish Energy contract pays a journeyman lineman at $227.88/hour, more than double the overtime disaster rate following Hurricane Irma, and the repair workers in Florida were not allotted the extra $332 as a nightly hotel stipend, or the additional $80/day for food. Electrical repair work is, of course, dangerous; that’s part of why compensation goes up considerably for natural disaster relief.
Republican and Democratic leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have asked Whitefish Energy to turn over various documents regarding its activities in Puerto Rico and for a staff briefing by Nov. 9.
“The size and terms of the contract, as well as the circumstances surrounding the contract’s formation, raise questions regarding PREPA’s standard contract awarding procedures,” wrote Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“The committee is also examining PREPA’s decision to forego the activation of the mutual assistance program,” they wrote, referring to the American Public Power Association’s program allowing utilities to call upon other utilities to help with disaster recovery.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General has also started an audit of the contract, spokesman Arlen Morales said.
“They will review the contract and as part of their standard procedure, they will conduct vetting to look for the presence of any inappropriate relationships,” Morales said.
In a statement, Whitefish welcomed the investigations.
“Whitefish Energy appreciates the efforts of the committees to gather information so that they have confidence in the overall process to support the people of Puerto Rico as well Whitefish Energy’s capabilities and commitment to deliver on the contract to help restore power and a sense of normalcy for the people of Puerto Rico,” it said.