Former FEMA Official Accused of Taking Bribes in Hurricane Maria Recovery – The New York Times


A worker for Cobra, a company hired to repair Puerto Rico’s shredded electrical grid after Hurricane Maria, installed power lines in Yabucoa, P.R., last year. The company’s former president was arrested on Tuesday.CreditCreditCarlos Giusti/Associated Press

MIAMI — A former top administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was arrested on Tuesday in a major federal corruption investigation that found that the official took bribes from the president of a company that secured $1.8 billion in federal contracts to repair Puerto Rico’s shredded electrical grid after Hurricane Maria.

Federal authorities arrested Ahsha Tribble, FEMA’s former deputy administrator for the region that includes Puerto Rico, and Donald Keith Ellison, the former president of Cobra Acquisitions with whom Ms. Tribble had a “close personal relationship,” Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Vélez, the United States attorney for Puerto Rico, announced. They were accused of conspiring to defraud the federal government, among other charges.

A second FEMA employee, Jovanda R. Patterson, who worked as a deputy chief of staff in Puerto Rico and was later hired by Cobra, was also arrested, Ms. Rodríguez Vélez said.

President Trump has repeatedly cast Puerto Rico’s leaders as incompetent and corrupt. Tuesday’s arrests, however, did not involve any Puerto Ricans, but rather a longtime federal employee working on the island under the Trump administration.

Ms. Tribble, who holds a doctorate in meteorology, was assigned to Puerto Rico for a year, where she was the agency’s energy sector lead. She was also a Homeland Security adviser during the Obama administration.

According to prosecutors, Mr. Ellison lavished Ms. Tribble with gifts in exchange for her influence inside FEMA that was used to give Cobra an advantage. The “stream of benefits” ranged from a helicopter ride over Puerto Rico to the securing of an apartment in New York, the authorities said.

They also included personal security services; the use of one of Mr. Ellison’s credit cards; airplane tickets, including one first-class ticket from San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, to New York; and hotel stays in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C. Mr. Ellison and Ms. Tribble traveled together and stayed in the same room, Ms. Rodríguez Vélez said. One of their itineraries mentioned in the indictment referred to travel involving “you,” “me” and “us.”

The two defendants tried to conceal the gifts by using Mr. Ellison’s credit card. Ms. Tribble communicated with Mr. Ellison using her personal email and cellphones, including a disposable cellphone, according to the indictment.

In return for the gifts, Ms. Tribble is accused of performing official acts to advance Cobra’s interests. For example, according to the indictment, in February 2018, after the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reported an explosion at a substation in Monacillo, P.R., that left several municipalities without power, Ms. Tribble insisted that the public utility hire Cobra to make repairs or risk not getting reimbursed by FEMA — even though leaders of the utility insisted they could do the same work at a far lower cost.

“They took advantage of one of the most vulnerable moments in the history of Puerto Rico to enrich themselves,” Ms. Rodríguez Vélez said.

Ms. Patterson, who was a friend of Ms. Tribble’s, resigned from FEMA in July 2018 to take a job with Cobra, which she negotiated with Ms. Tribble’s help while she was taking part in evaluating Cobra as a vendor for FEMA, the indictment says.

Ms. Tribble was arrested in Florida, Mr. Ellison in Oklahoma and Ms. Patterson in California, prosecutors said.

Investigators in the latest case found no evidence that any staff member at the power authority, commonly known as PREPA, was involved in the scheme, prosecutors said.

In a statement, José Ortiz Vázquez, the chief executive of the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority, said the company canceled its contract with Cobra in March, when it learned of possible irregularities. By then, $1.1 billion had been disbursed.

Ahsha Tribble, left, and Donald Keith Ellison, right, were arrested and accused of conspiring to defraud the federal government. Ms. Tribble is FEMA’s former deputy administrator for the region that includes Puerto Rico, and Mr. Ellison is the former president of Cobra Acquisitions.CreditChristopher Mardorf/FEMA

“It has always been a priority for us to be able to assist and collaborate with the investigations carried out by local and federal authorities, and we will continue to do so, as part of our ministerial duty to ensure the proper use of public funds,” Mr. Ortiz said.

Cobra is a subsidiary of Mammoth Energy Services. Peter Mirijanian, a Mammoth spokesman, said the company had been working with the authorities.

“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,” he said.

Cobra was one of the first companies to go to Puerto Rico to help restore electricity after Hurricane Maria toppled the power grid in September 2017. It took nearly a year and several billion dollars to get it back to where it had been before Maria and the storm that immediately preceded it, Hurricane Irma.

Whitefish Energy, a small Montana firm that was hired for the early effort, faced widespread and almost immediate criticism for charging more than $300 an hour for linemen. Even as Puerto Rico’s government was forced to cancel the Whitefish contract because of the scandal, Cobra received a deal whose terms were virtually identical to Whitefish’s — yet it managed to escape widespread public attention.

As the work dragged on, competitors said they noticed that FEMA seemed to push Cobra onto PREPA, and Ms. Tribble was seen publicly socializing with Mr. Ellison in San Juan in a manner that suggested a romantic relationship.

Mr. Ellison’s lawyer, William Leone, described his client as a former Army Ranger and a “decorated war hero” who had done tours in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Keith Ellison has done nothing wrong here,” Mr. Leone said. “They were no bribes. There was no corrupt intent. He and Ahsha Tribble were friends; there is nothing that makes that illegal or improper.”

Mr. Leone stressed that the contract was awarded before Mr. Ellison met Ms. Tribble, and noted that the contract costs were audited by RAND Corporation and found to be reasonable.

“There is nothing wrong with this contract or having a close personal relationship with someone who works at FEMA,” he said. “Every aspect of this contract was audited, reviewed and approved by so many levels of government bureaucracy, I don’t think any one person could have influenced how it was done.”

Ms. Tribble’s lawyer, Bridget Moore, said she and her co-counsel “look forward to vindicating our client, and bringing to light the details of how this investigation has been handled by the government.”

But Puerto Rico’s governor, Wanda Vázquez, called what was outlined in the charges “reprehensible and outrageous.”

“They misused and took advantage of the need and pain that Puerto Rico faced after the passage of Hurricane Maria,” she said, adding that the government will continue to strengthen its anticorruption measures.

FEMA “is fully cooperating with federal investigators,” the agency said in a statement. “FEMA’s mission is to help the American people before, during, and after disasters, and our mission can only be accomplished by maintaining the public trust and confidence of those we serve. As such, the agency takes allegations of employee misconduct extremely seriously and holds all employees to the highest ethical standards — requiring them to protect government resources and place public service over private gain in everything they do.”

Ms. Tribble is currently on unpaid suspension, and has no official access to FEMA facilities, systems or records, FEMA said.

Federal authorities have been conducting a wide-ranging corruption inquiry in Puerto Rico. Six people, including two senior Puerto Rican government officials, were arrested in a separate case in July on charges of steering $15.5 million in federal contracts to politically connected consultants. The case stirred unrest against the governor at the time, Ricardo A. Rosselló. A leak of hundreds of pages of a private text chat between him and his inner circle days later unleashed two weeks of mass protests that led to Mr. Rosselló’s resignation.