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Former senior FEMA officials arrested on bribery and fraud charges over Hurricane Maria relief effort in Puerto Rico

Daniel Chaitin

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Two former officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency were arrested on charges of bribery and fraud following a federal corruption investigation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

The former president of Cobra Acquisitions, a company that secured $1.8 billion in federal contracts to repair Puerto Rico's destroyed power grid, was also arrested by the FBI, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

An indictment returned by a federal grand jury includes 15 charges against Ahsha Tribble and Jovanda Patterson, who were former FEMA officials, and Donald Keith Ellison, who was president of Cobra Acquisitions up until June.

A Justice Department statement said Tribble, who was FEMA deputy administrator of the region, and Ellison are alleged to have "developed a personal relationship wherein Ellison provided Tribble with things of value with the intent to influence Tribble’s performance of official acts. Ellison provided Tribble with personal helicopter use, hotel accommodations, airfare, personal security services, and the use of a credit card."

Patterson was a FEMA deputy chief of staff assigned to San Juan from October 2017 to March 2018 before being hired by Cobra.

If found guilty, the defendants face sentences up to 5 years in prison for conspiracy, travel act violations, conflict of interest, and false statements and 30 years for honest services wire fraud and disaster fraud, according to the Justice Department.

Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico, said the defendants "decided to take advantage of the precarious conditions of our electric power grid and engaged in a bribery and honest services wire fraud scheme in order to enrich themselves illegally."

Billions of dollars were spent to repair the devastated power grid in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of roughly 3.2 million Americans, after Hurricane Maria hit, which included putting up new utility poles and transmission lines all around the island.

It took about 11 months for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to restore service to the 1.5 million customers who lost power — an effort that was mired in controversy in late 2017 due to a $300 million contract with Montana-based Whitefish Energy, which then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was forced to cancel.