In the wake of a pair of devastating hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico in 2017, tens of billions of dollars of federal aid and recovery money flowed into the island territory, but now two years later the island is still suffering and little has been accomplished despite that abundance of recovery funding.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested that corruption was a big problem in Puerto Rico and a likely reason for the limited progress, and now three major arrests on bribery and fraud charges related to the hurricane recovery efforts would seem to strongly support that assertion from the president.
Arrests made in post-hurricane corruption investigation
The Washington Examiner reported that two former top officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who were deployed to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, as well as a wealthy businessman and federal contractor, were recently arrested by federal authorities and charged with conspiracy, bribery, fraud, and other charges as part of a broader investigation into rampant corruption on the island.
The two former FEMA officials are Ahsha Tribble, who was deputy administrator in charge of the region and tasked with overseeing the restoration of the power grid, and Jovanda Patterson, deputy chief of staff assigned to San Juan. The contractor is David Keith Ellison, former president of a company known as Cobra Acquisitions LLC, which obtained contracts to work on restoring the power grid.
At the center of the charges are allegations that Ellison offered and delivered bribes to Tribble in exchange for the hurricane recovery contracts. Patterson is alleged to have received a job with Cobra after resigning from FEMA in exchange for her role in the scheme to win hefty contracts — totaling roughly $1.8 billion — for Ellison’s company.
Bribes offered and received in exchange for federal contracts
In a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico, it was announced that a total of 15 criminal counts had been leveled against the three indicted individuals. Those charges include: “conspiracy to commit bribery of public officials; acts affecting a personal financial interest; false statements; disaster fraud; honest services wire fraud, Travel Act violations, and wire fraud.”
Tribble and Ellison were both charged with bribery due to evidence indicating that Ellison gave “things of value” to Tribble in exchange for her using her influence to award him a contract. Those things of value allegedly included: “personal helicopter use, hotel accommodations, airfare, personal security services, and the use of a credit card.”
Ellison also faces charges of making false statements to federal investigators after he denied having a personal relationship with Tribble and also denied ever riding in a helicopter with her, both assertions that were ultimately proven untrue. Indeed, the investigation uncovered a plethora of private communications between Ellison and Tribble showing that a personal relationship developed during the time both were on the island.
As for Patterson, she faces charges that she committed wire fraud and financially benefited personally by purposefully misrepresenting her position and salary with FEMA while negotiating for a job at Cobra Energy LLC, all while she was still employed by the federal agency.
Sent to help, enriched themselves instead
“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane María,” U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Velez said. “Instead, they 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.”
Rodriguez-Velez added, “All government officials are entrusted with performing their duties honestly and ethically. The charged offenses are reprehensible, more so in light of (Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority)’s and Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.”
On the counts of conflict of interest, conspiracy, false statements, and Travel Act violations, the charged defendants face up to five years in prison. With respect to the bribery and fraud charges, they could face up to 30 years in prison if proven guilty and convicted. Hopefully, that is what happens.