Interior Department Denies Wrongdoing in Puerto Rico Reconstruction Deal

Puerto Rico Reconstruction
AFP/ Ricardo ARDUENGO

The Department of Interior is pushing back against media reports that there was any collusion between the agency and Montana-based Whitefish Energy, which has contracted with Puerto Rico to repair the island’s electronic grid taken out by Hurricane Maria last month.

The company is based in Whitefish, Montana, the same small town where former Republican Congressman and now Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke hails from. The connection has inspired conspiracy theories in media reports about the deal.

The Washington Post reported about the $300 million contract:

For the sprawling effort to restore Puerto Rico’s crippled electrical grid, the territory’s state-owned utility has turned to a two-year-old company from Montana that had just two full-time employees on the day Hurricane Maria made landfall.

Whitefish said Monday that it has 280 workers in the territory, using linemen from across the country, most of them as subcontractors, and that the number grows on average from 10 to 20 people a day. It said it was close to completing infrastructure work that will energize some of the key industrial facilities that are critical to restarting the local economy.

But a spokesperson for Interior told Breitbart News that the agency had nothing to do with the contract or its negotiation.

“Neither the Secretary nor anyone in his office have taken any meetings or action on behalf of this company,” the spokesperson said.

“The Zinkes and the Techmanskis (owners of Whitefish Energy] know each other because they both live in a small town (population 6,000) where everyone knows everyone and his son joined a friend who worked a summer job at one of their construction sites,” the spokesperson said.

Whitefish Energy announced the contract last week:

Working side-by-side with the engineering team of PREPA (the state utility), Whitefish Energy has already repaired several miles of key transmission and distribution lines, bringing the team within days of energizing and restoring power to multiple Puerto Rico towns and communities.

Consistent with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s plan, Whitefish Energy is committed to restoring power to 100 percent of the island, and ensuring Puerto Rico has an improved, resilient electrical grid.

The Post claimed the decision by Puerto Rico state officials “is drawing scrutiny from Congress” and the media outlet sought skeptics of the deal for its report.

“The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why [the utility] would go to Whitefish,” Susan F. Tierney, a former senior official at the Energy Department and state regulatory agencies, said. “I’m scratching my head wondering how it all adds up.”

But Chris Chiames, spokesman for Whitefish Energy, said the company is committed to the work despite the risks.

“We are taking personal risks and business risks working in perilous physical and financial conditions,” Chiames told the Post. “So the carping by others is unfounded, and we stand by our work and our commitment to the people of Puerto Rico.”

Andy Techmanski, chief executive of Whitefish Energy, told CNN that the contract resulted from conversations between his company and utility officials in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has 2,400 miles of transmission lines across the island, and 30,000 miles of distribution lines with some 300 substations, the Post reported.

The House Committee on Natural Resources is examining Whitefish Energy’s role in Puerto Rico, Parish Braden, a spokesman for the committee, told the Post.

“The size and unknown details of this contract raises numerous questions,” Braden said. “This is one of many things the committee is taking a close look at as it continues to work with the resident commissioner, governor’s office, and oversight board to ensure Puerto Rico’s recovery is robust, effective and sustained.”

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