Former FEMA officials, contractor arrested in Puerto Rico bribery scheme

Puerto Rico has had quite a track record of corruption among public officials, and the destructive hurricanes that devastated the U.S. territory in 2017 only served to put that fact in the spotlight. The bureaucratic disaster that followed prompted Trump’s Justice Department to quietly launch a broad investigation into allegations of public corruption — and they’ve made a number of arrests on that front.

Now, three more individuals in Puerto Rico have just been arrested on corruption-related charges: two former senior Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials and a businessman who stands accused of bribing them.

Bribery scheme uncovered

According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Puerto Rico, the two officials and contractor are alleged to have engaged in a scheme that saw the officials use their influence to award hurricane recovery effort contracts to the businessman in exchange for financially beneficial gifts and rewards for the officials.

The two former FEMA officials are Ahsha Tribble, who was the deputy regional administrator that had oversight of the Hurricane Maria recovery efforts and was specifically tasked with getting the island’s damaged electrical power grid back online and functioning, and Jovanda Patterson, the deputy chief of staff assigned to San Juan.

The charged businessman is Donald Keith Ellison, former president of Cobra Acquisitions LLC, who obtained contracts through FEMA and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority worth a combined $1.8 billion in taxpayer dollars for his company to work on restoring the island’s power grid.

The trio is now facing 15 separate criminal counts that 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,” according to the news release.

Lucrative recovery contracts

The federal indictment explained that Ellison and Tribble developed a “personal relationship” while working together on the island that included Ellison providing Tribble with “things of value” that prompted the official to use her own influence to ensure that Ellison’s company received the contracts for the work on the power grid.

Those things of value included “personal helicopter use, hotel accommodations, airfare, personal security services, and the use of a credit card.” On top of that, Ellison helped Tribble’s friend and colleague, Patterson, obtain a lucrative job with his company — even as she was, at the time, still employed by FEMA.

In addition to charges of bribery and fraud, Ellison has also been charged with making false statements to investigators after he was caught in multiple lies about his relationship with Tribble. Indeed, he denied any relationship at all, but investigators uncovered a substantial trail of secretive communications “using private email accounts, private cellular telephones, including a disposable prepaid cellular number, Apple iMessage, and SMS texts rather than FEMA issued email accounts or cellular telephones.”

As for Patterson, she was specifically accused of having purposefully misrepresented her employment level and salary at FEMA while angling for a job with Ellison in exchange for her assistance in securing the contracts for his company.

“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane Maria. 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,” U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Velez said, adding that their actions were especially “reprehensible” in light of the island’s troubled financial status.

If convicted, these three could face up to five years in prison for the conspiracy, conflicts of interest, and false statements charges, as well as up to 30 years in prison over the fraud charges.

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