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Puerto Rico power utility won’t testify at Natural Resources Committee hearing

By on November 7, 2017

According to the letter, Prepa Executive Director Ricardo Ramos’s participation in the Washington, D.C., hearing will “undoubtedly” interrupt the electric power grid’s restoration efforts. (Juan J. Rodríguez / CB)

SAN JUAN – The chairman of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (Prepa) Governing Board, Ernesto Sgroi, has excused the executive director of the public corporation, Ricardo Ramos, from appearing at the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, which is investigating Puerto Rico’s response to the emergency caused by hurricanes Irma and María.

In a letter dated Nov. 6, Sgroi tells committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Bruce Westerman (R-AR), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, that Ramos will not be able to attend the Tuesday hearing because “having him off the island for the three days required to attend [the hearing] in Washington will undoubtedly interrupt our recovery efforts,” among other justifications that “would not be acceptable to the members of the Committee.”

The non-appearance of Prepa’s top official comes at a time when the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is disputing in federal court the fiscal control board’s intention to appoint Noel Zamot as the utility’s chief transformation officer, a congressionally requested move. In addition, the government’s representative to the fiscal board, Christian Sobrino, has also expressed concern after the Natural Resources Committee denied his participation in the hearing.

It should be noted that on Sunday, Oct. 29, Ramos had stated at a press conference at Prepa’s headquarters in Santurce that he was ready to testify before the committee, hours after he announced the cancellation of the his utility’s contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings.

“While we are willing to make Mr. Ramos available to speak to the Committee at a future date, he has informed us that he is unfortunately hindered from participating in the scheduled hearing due to urgent efforts underway in the emergency restoration, including the imminent mobilization and logistics for 3,000 additional workers and the necessary equipment for the Florida and New York authorities who will arrive in stages as of November 21, 2017,” the letter reads.

During his visit to the island at the end of October, Bishop was emphatic when pointing out general concern in Congress about the manner in which the granting of contracts was handled during the emergency. To questions from Caribbean Business, the representative did not take sides regarding alleged irregularities in the contract granted to Whitefish Energy, which was canceled on Oct. 29.

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“I don’t want to reach any conclusions until we have had an opportunity to investigate,” the congressman said in an aside with CB.

Bishop had recently written a letter to Ramos expressing concern over the $300 million contract with Whitefish to repair the island’s power grid. The firm has been linked to donors of President Donald Trump and is based in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has denied any involvement in the matter.

“First, our committee, as well as the other groups, including the oversight board, will investigate exactly what is behind the Whitefish contract,” Bishop responded when asked about the matter during the press conference at Puerto Rico’s Muñiz Air National Guard Base.

Rep. Rob Bishop while in Puerto Rico on Oct. 28, 2017.  (Felipe Torres/CB)

Tuesday’s congressional hearing will be divided in two parts; a first round with the executive director of the entity created by the Promesa federal law, Natalie Jaresko and Zamot to examine their roles in the recovery efforts after the devastation wrought by María. Ramos was called to testify in the second round to answer questions concerning the irregularities surrounding the hiring of Whitefish as a leading contractor in the repair of the collapsed electrical system and his delay in requesting support from the American Public Power Association (APPA).

According to a memorandum, the main purpose of the hearing is to reveal the role of the fiscal board to identify if it needs additional tools to guarantee that the island will recover quickly and the ability of local entities to ensure transparency and accountability with the assigned federal funds.

“With the devastation and humanitarian crisis brought on by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the role of the Oversight Board must be reexamined and clarified as necessary,” the letter adds.

A look into Whitefish Energy, hired to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid

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