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House panels seek documents on Puerto Rico utility deal
October 26, 2017 / 8:26 PM / a month ago

House panels seek documents on Puerto Rico utility deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional committee on Thursday set a Nov. 2 deadline for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to provide information related to its $300 million contract with a small Montana firm to repair damage to the utility’s infrastructure caused by Hurricane Maria.

A house is lit up with the help of a generator next to houses in the dark, after Hurricane Maria hit the island and damaged the power grid in September, in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

“Specifically, 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,” the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop, said in a letter to PREPA’s executive director, Ricardo Ramos.

Media reports that Whitefish Energy Holdings entered the contract with PREPA to fix the utility’s power grid raised questions among Democrats in Congress and others when it was disclosed that the Montana firm won the contract without a competitive bidding process.

The two-year-old company had only two full-time employees and was rapidly hiring workers to tackle the job of patching up the destroyed power grid that has left most of the U.S. territory without electricity for weeks following the destructive hurricane.

While Bishop’s letter said emergency circumstances could “necessitate” emergency relief contracts, “Transparency and accountability in government contracting, however, is not to be compromised.”

Separately, U.S. Representatives including Greg Walden, a Republican, and Frank Pallone, a Democrat, asked Whitefish in a letter to provide documents related to the contract to the Energy and Commerce committee before Nov. 9.

A woman holds a flashlight while standing on a street in the dark, after Hurricane Maria hit the island and damaged the power grid in September, in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Whitefish founding partner Ken Luce said his company appreciated the efforts to gather information so lawmakers have “confidence in the overall process to support the people of Puerto Rico” and Whitefish’s capabilities.

And two Democratic U.S. senators urged the head of a congressional watchdog office to probe the PREPA contract, saying they were concerned about the bidding process and potential high costs.

FILE PHOTO: The power station Central Palo Seco of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is seen on the outskirts of San Juan, Puerto Rico, June 30, 2015. REUTERS/Alvin Baez-Hernandez/File PHoto

Senators Maria Cantwell and Ron Wyden wrote a letter to Eugene Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general at the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

The senators said they were also concerned about reports of “contemporaneous communications between Whitefish and senior members of the federal executive branch, including Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke,” as the contract was being discussed.

A Washington Post report this week said the chief executive of Whitefish, Andy Techmanski, and Zinke acknowledged that they know each other and that one of the secretary’s sons worked at one of Techmanski’s construction sites. Both Zinke’s office and Techmanski said the secretary had no role in Whitefish securing the contract.

The Interior Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the senators’ letter.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has defended the contract saying it was necessary to put workers in place quickly. Whitefish, which has hired workers mostly through subcontracts, has called criticism “unfounded.”

Reporting by Richard Cowan, Timothy Gardner and Nick Brown in New York; Editing by Richard Chang and Tom Brown

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