Head of Puerto Rico emergency management resigns amid Whitefish controversy
- The head of the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency has resigned amid the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria, though the New York Times reports it is unknown if his departure is related to the efforts.
- PREMA Commissioner Abner Gómez in a statement acknowledged the slow recovery efforts; government officials had indicated in the last two weeks that he was "exhausted" and had been on vacation.
- The New York Times also reported this weekend that Whitefish Energy, the Montana power company selected to help restore energy to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, was paying linemen it hired just a fraction of what it billed the island. The company billed $319/hour for their services, but paid them between $42/hour and $100/hour.
It's been almost two months since Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, and the island's power grid is still only about 50% repaired. Despite that, the U.S. Army has now ended its mission on the island and, separately, the head of PREMA resigned.
The Army indicated its work, which does not involve power recovery but communications, medical emergencies and road clearing, had ended on the island. It was not immediately clear if the resignation of Gómez was related to the island's slow recovery efforts. Prior to his departure from the agency, Puerto Rico's government had indicated he was on a two-week vacation because he was "exhausted," The Hill reported.
Puerto Rico has since accepted mutual assistance from other utilities in repairing its system, but fallout from the Whitefish contract is still in the news.
The controversial contract, which came under intense scrutiny before being canceled, included an employee per-diem in excess of $400. And perhaps even more unusual, the contract included a passage ensuring that, "in no event shall [government bodies] have the right to audit or review the cost and profit elements."
Signed by PREPA Executive Director Ricardo Rodriguez and Whitefish Energy Holding CEO Andy Techmanski, the contract also specified that Puerto Rico could not make a claim against Whitefish for work delays or completion.
That contract has since been canceled, though Puerto Rico officials have requested $10 million in federal funds to pay Whitefish for work it did before the deal was nixed.
Earlier this month, Puerto Rico issued a statement highlighting the work it had completed, including restoring miles of transmission lines and dozens of transmission towers. Efforts also included clearing access roads, clearing rights-of-way, excavation, and helicopter airlifts of manpower and equipment.
But the New York Times story over the weekend casts more doubt on the company's operations, as the differential between billing of PREPA and lineman pay came under scrutiny. The billing rate was far in excess of average linemen wages, but a company spokesman told the Times that “simply looking at the rate differential does not take into account Whitefish’s overhead costs."
According to the Times, Whitefish was charging the island about 500% more for linemen's work than it paid the workers themselves.The company said it paid a range of fees to utility workers, depending on their experience, salaries, union rates and other factors.
At least two congressional committees are looking into the issue, as is the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The $300 million contract awarded Whitefish to repair damage from Hurricane Maria was procured without competitive bidding and many of the terms have alarmed observers.
- The New York Times The lineman got $63 an hour. The utility was billed $319 an hour.
- The New York Times Emergency manager resigns in Puerto Rico; Army ends its mission
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