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Former Cobra Energy president pleads not guilty in FEMA scheme

By on September 25, 2019

The U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico (CB file)

Ellison arrested 20 days after grand jury returned corruption indictment 

SAN JUAN — Just as everyone in Puerto Rico prepared to face Tropical Storm Karen, former Cobra Energy President Donald Keith Ellison was arrested on the island. He pleaded not guilty of the charges against him before U.S. Magistrate Judge Marcos López.

Unusually, the arrest of the Cobra executive occurred 20 days after the charges against him were formalized and 13 days after U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez gave a press conference making public the arrests on Sept. 10 of Ahsha Tribble, the former deputy regional administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Region II, assigned to work in Puerto Rico as part of FEMA’S response to Hurricane Maria; Ellison; and Jovanda Patterson, FEMA deputy chief of staff, assigned to San Juan.

On Monday, the initial hearing was held before Judge López, who imposed a $500,000 bail. 

The former executive indicated in the courtroom, through his defense attorney, Sonia Torres, that he pleaded not guilty to the eight criminal charges against him for allegedly orchestrating a fraud with FEMA funds to repair Puerto Rico’s electric power service in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and María.

The judge told the defendant that he has to look for a job and mental health treatment, if necessary, and that he can only travel between Puerto Rico and Georgia.

Ellison was then released under the probation conditions.

According to the indictment, one month and two days after the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria, Cobra Energy and its then-President Ellison won a series of contracts with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), which ended up totaling $1.8 billion, allegedly through a fraud, extortion and bribery scheme orchestrated with Tribble.

Ellison, Tribble and Patterson allegedly participated in a 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 Registry of Corporations administered by the Department of State, on Oct. 13, 2017, Cobra was incorporated in Puerto Rico as a foreign company, and two days later obtained its first contract with Prepa. The resident agent of Cobra Acquisitions is the Prentice Hall Corporation System, which in turn obtains services from The Fast Solution.

On March 26, 2018, Cobra and Prepa signed a second contract for an additional $900 million with funds reimbursed by FEMA.

The federal indictment argues that in exchange for Tribble pushing the contracting of Cobra services at Prepa, Ellison gave the federal official gifts of value such as a helicopter tour over Puerto Rico in February 2018; assistance procuring a place to live in New York in or about February 2018; the negotiation and hiring of Patterson by Cobra Energy; airfare from Miami to Orlando and first-class tickets from San Juan to New York, provided personal security services and gave her access to his credit card, among others..

The former FEMA regional administrator’s hearing is slated to be held on or before Oct. 4 at the Federal Court in Hato Rey. No time or day has yet been specified by federal Judge Francisco A. Besosa, who will preside over the case.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, federal authorities formalized the arrest of Patterson in Puerto Rico, and the initial hearing was before Judge López, who imposed a bail of $10,000.

Patterson pled not guilty to the three charges against her. She was represented by José Aguayo. Judge López allowed her to travel within the United States as part of her job with one of Cobra’s subsidiaries. Her non-work related trips are limited to travel between Georgia and Puerto Rico.

Follow Limarys Suárez Torres on Twitter: @Limarys_Suarez

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