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FEMA official, Cobra Energy president arrested in connection with Puerto Rico recovery contract

By on September 10, 2019

U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Vélez (Juan José Rodríguez/CB)

Former FEMA deputy regional administrator, former Cobra Energy president and FEMA deputy chief of staff indicted for disaster fraud, among other crimes

SAN JUAN — U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Vélez held a press conference Tuesday to give details about arrests made in relation to Hurricane Maria recovery funds, specifically to repair the island’s destroyed electrical grid.

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; former Cobra Acquisitions LLC President Donald Keith Ellison; and Jovanda Patterson, FEMA deputy chief of staff, assigned to San Juan, were arrested on charges of 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.

The arrests were carried out by Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General and FBI agents.

“Today’s arrests are reprehensible and outrageous. Knowing that federal government officials defrauded Puerto Rico, in this case FEMA, and the private company COBRA, in charge of helping our Island’s restoration of the electrical system, is of great sadness. These [defendants], according to the accusation, misused and took advantage of the need and pain that Puerto Rico faced after the passage of Hurricane Maria. We reproach corruption, wherever it comes from and it is why we work every day to strengthen the measures to identify possible behaviors of this kind, that seek to take advantage of the need and pain of a people,” Gov. Wanda Vázquez said in statement issued from Washington, D.C., where she was to meet FEMA officials this week.

Cobra Energy’s former president allegedly gave Tribble a helicopter tour, lodging, multiple first-class tickets, security, access to credit cards and even an apartment in San Juan to the former FEMA official in exchange for exerting undue pressure on Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) officials, according to the 15-count indictment, which does not include en utility officials.

Prepa Executive Director José Ortiz said Tuesday that Cobra has collected $1.1 billion of the $1.9 billion it had in contracts. That balance corresponds to March, when the contract was canceled, Ortiz said, adding that “PREPA will soon request a meeting with FEMA officials to determine the next steps to follow.”

“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane María. 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,” Rodríguez said. “We hope that these accusations are an example for people who believe they can get away with it.”

In a statement, FEMA said it “cannot comment on personnel matters; however, the Agency is fully cooperating with federal investigators.”

Federal authorities have been investigating FEMA-funded contracts granted by the Prepa to Cobra Energy, a subsidiary of Mammoth Energy, for the repair of the island’s power grid after it was mangled by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

The investigation into Cobra Energy’s former president became known after he asked the court to unseal an affidavit provided by an officer that gave way to freezing $4.5 million Ellison sought to gain access to.

“From in or about October 2017 to in or about April 2019, within the District of Puerto Rico,” Tribble, Ellison, “the defendants, and others known and unknown, willfully and knowingly combined, conspired…” against the United States, the indictment reads.

Ellison would influence Tribble, the deputy regional administrator, sector lead, and recovery manager, in connection to Cobra’s contracts with Prepa related to electric power grid restoration after Hurricane Maria, with such assistance as airfare, ground transportation, helicopter flights, hotel rooms, meals, entertainment expenses, employment for an individual at the behest Tribble, and personal security services.

According to the indictment, “The things of value promised and given directly and indirectly” to Tribble by Ellison included the following:

a. A helicopter tour over Puerto Rico on or about February 7, 2018; 

b. Assistance procuring a place to live in New York in or about February 2018; 

C. The negotiation and hiring of [3] Jovanda R. Patterson a/k/a Jo a/k/a Jojo by Cobra Energy;

d. starting in or about March 2018 and culminating in July 2018; e. Hotel accommodations in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on or about July 17 to July 18, 2018; 

f. Airfare from Miami to Orlando for travel on or about July 20, 2018; 

g. First class airfare from San Juan to New York for travel on or about September 22, 2018; 

h. Personal security services in or about November to December 2018; 

i. Roundtrip airfare from Washington DC to Charlotte for travel on or about November 29, 2018 to November 30, 2018; 

j. Hotel accommodations in Charlotte on or about November 29-30, 2018; 

k. Access to and the use of the credit card of Ellison; and 

l. Access to and the use of an apartment located in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

In exchange for things of value from Ellison, Tribble took official action to cause a letter to be sent from FEMA’s federal coordinating officer to the Puerto Rico Government’s authorized representative informing that FEMA had determined the costs under the Cobra contract with Prepa to be “reasonable.”

Tribble also “directed, advised, and pressured PREPA executives to utilize Cobra personnel to repair damage to the Monacillos substation, and then on FEMA officials as well to “take action for Local Redevelopment Authority for Naval Station Roosevelt  Roads (“LRA”) to enter into an agreement with PREPA for Cobra to perform repair work at Roosevelt Roads. 

She also pressured PREPA executives to accept the specifications of a COBRA design for the electric power distribution system in Vieques and to engage COBRA in the execution of the proposed redesign. 

Tribble and Ellison communicated using her private email account, her private cellphone, a disposable prepaid cellular number, Apple iMessages, SMS texts, and photographs, rather than through her FEMA issued email account or FEMA issued cellular telephone, the indictment reads.

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Earlier Tuesday, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, Lymarie Llovet, told NotiUno radio that three people were arrested, in Florida, Oklahoma and another unknown location.

If found guilty, the defendants face possible sentences of up to five years for conspiracy, Travel Act violations, conflict of interest, and false statements, and up to 30 years for honest services wire fraud and disaster fraud.

In its second quarter financial results, Arty Straehla, Mammoth’s CEO, stated, “While our work in Puerto Rico has ended, we have continued to receive payments from PREPA, with $42 million received in the second quarter of 2019.”

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