Fact-Finding Drives Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Puerto Rico
Carolina, PUERTO RICO – A visit Friday by a bipartisan Congressional delegation gave important members of Congress a firsthand account of the true devastation across Puerto Rico as they visited Utuado, a town that had bridges and roads washed away, mountainsides caved and houses destroyed.
And, although the delegation headed by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) came away with the impression that Puerto Rico’s road to recovery is a monumental climb, they are truly concerned about contractual and procedural irregularities that have prompted greater oversight across both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.
“One of the reasons we came down here was to get a firsthand look so we know more about it. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions until we have a chance to investigate a lot of these particulars,” Bishop told Caribbean Business in a quick aside on the tarmac after a press conference held inside a Muñiz Air National Guard Base hangar.
The particulars of which he speaks are a veiled reference to reports of irregularities in the delivery of food and water, the initial maze of red tape in referring critical patients from hospitals without power to the USNS Comfort, a military hospital vessel equipped with operating rooms, and the very slow reconstruction of a crippled power grid.
“Actually, it was interesting to talk to both FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and to do what we are doing [taking a firsthand look]; I don’t think there is going to be a problem with that situation,” the chairman added in reference to reports of irregularities in the delivery of food and water in at least six of the island’s 78 municipalities, which was reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s San Juan Field Office several weeks ago.
Bishop addressed those reports in a letter dated Oct. 17, addressed to FBI Director Christopher Wray, asking that he look into the matter and brief the Natural Resources Committee by Oct. 23.
An Offer They Could Not Refuse
Earlier this week, Bishop sent a second missive, this time pertaining to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (Prepa) $300 million deal with Whitefish Energy, a Montana-based company with a two-person front and a meager track record. In the letter, Bishop and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas) demand that Prepa Executive Director Ricardo Ramos provide “all information and documents related to the Whitefish contract” be delivered to his office by Nov. 2.
The chairman remains steadfast in his resolve to press forward in his investigation of the Whitefish contract. “First of all our committee, as well as the other groups, including the oversight board, will investigate and find out exactly what is behind the Whitefish contract,” Bishop replied when asked about the matter during the press conference.
“I don’t know enough about it to come to any conclusions that are for or against it. But that is the purpose of finding out the specifics of the contract—why it is there and how it happened,” he said.
Although Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Sunday called for the cancellation of the Whitefish contract, days after Bishop made his remarks, Prepa’s Ramos indicated in a press conference that he is set to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee in November. Sources on the Hill with ties to the GOP told Caribbean Business that oversight board scrutiny over the contract remains in play as well.
Bishop was privy to the irregularities tied to the deal because he was also briefed separately by members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) enabled by the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (Promesa) . That meeting was one of several held by the board to inform that it would be appointing Revitalization Coordinator Noel Zamot as Prepa’s chief transformation officer in the wake of the Whitefish hire.
The slow pace in Prepa’s restoration of power—more than 75 percent of the population remains without power—has prompted yet another investigation by bipartisan leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has requested documents and information from the Montana company.
First Things First
During the press conference, Bishop was asked whether he foresees any changes to Promesa given the current state of events?
His answer: “Look, I’m not going to take anything off of the table at this time. Right now there are three types of challenges in places. The first one is humanitarian—getting lights turned on, getting food and water flowing. There are immediate and long-term changes, we have to rebuild and then we move on from there.”
On the immediate front, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González accomplished something significant Friday as they got the delegation to get down and dirty in the tangled wreckage of inland Puerto Rico left behind by the wind beast named María. Theirs was not a perfunctory walk in the clouds flying over a devastated landscape nor a media stroll through communities on the mend.
“The bipartisan congressional oversight delegation asked to see the most devastated areas of the island. It was important because they saw the devastation up close and personal,” said González, who touted the commitment of the members of Congress. “They saw firsthand how people in the community transported food across a river using a pulley system because the bridge that once connected the communities was washed away.”
The members of the bipartisan delegation–which included Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), Anthony Brown (D-Maryland), Norma Torres (D-California) and Jeff Denham (R-California)–unanimously came away with the true sense of devastation and a sense of urgency to help Puerto Rico.
“I commend Resident Commissioner González for her leadership in bringing the delegation to Puerto Rico,” said Gov. Rosselló, who accompanied the delegation during the visit to Utuado. “It was important that they witnessed the devastation and the scope of the disaster firsthand.”
The question now is whether the torn countryside, matchstick communities and toppled powerlines leave lasting impressions that sway them. “I knew full well how bad things were thanks to the leadership of Congresswoman González,” leader McCarthy said, “And so, yes, I knew of the devastation, but seeing it in person reaffirms that we have to help Puerto Rico rebuild, but we have to do it in a way that we make infrastructure better.”