The governor of Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory that was devastated by a hurricane a month ago, called Sunday for the immediate cancellation of a contract to restore electrical power to the Caribbean island as questions grow about the small company that was awarded the work.
Governor Ricardo Rossello said the board of the island’s power company should rescind the $300 million pact with Whitefish Energy Holdings, an upstart repair company in Montana, a western U.S. state, even though just days ago he defended the contract. The island awarded the contract without a normal public bidding process that would have allowed other companies to compete for the work.
He said the contract with Whitefish Energy had become a distraction after critics in the electric power industry, Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency raised questions.
Rossello said that at least $8 million has been paid to Whitefish so far, but “there cannot be any kind of distraction that alters the commitment to restore electrical power as soon as possible in Puerto Rico.”
He asked that power crews from New York and Florida be dispatched to help restore power.
Some Democratic lawmakers in Washington questioned what influence the administration of President Donald Trump might have played in the awarding of the contract. Whitefish is based in the Montana town of the same name, which also is the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona said, “Congress needs to understand why the Whitefish contract was awarded and whether other, more cost-effective options were available.” Some critics of the deal with the for-profit company say the island should have opted to use a mutual-aid network of public utilities that usually are called on for massive repair work after natural disasters.
The Department of Homeland Security says its has started an investigation of the awarding of the contract and will look for any “inappropriate relationships.”
The Associated Press obtained Whitefish’s contract, which called for payments of $20,277 an hour for a heavy lift Chinook helicopter, $650 an hour for a large crane truck, $322 an hour for a foreman of a power line crew, $319 an hour for a journeyman lineman and $286 an hour for a mechanic. Each worker also gets a daily allowance of $80 for food, $332 for a hotel room and $1,000 for each flight to or from the U.S. mainland.
Whitefish, which had just two employees when it won the contract, but since hired more than 300, had started work on restoring electrical power to the island, where only about 30 percent of the island’s 3.7 million residents have had power since Hurricane Maria ravaged the territory and decimated its electrical grid system.
Rossello has said he hopes the island will have most of its power grid back in operation by the end of the year, but if bidding is opened for the repairs that could push back restoration of power.