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Questions Raised Over Puerto Rico Power Deal

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A contract agreed between the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and Whitefish Energy Holdings to repair damaged power infrastructure on the island is raising questions.

The deal, worth $300 million, was struck Sept. 29, shortly after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, reports BBC News.

But suspicions about the contract grew after it emerged that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's hometown is the utility company's base, Whitefish, Montana.

"The size and unknown details of this contract raises numerous questions," Parish Braden, a spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee, told the BBC. "This is one of many things the committee is taking a close look at as it continues to work with the resident commissioner, governor's office, and oversight board to ensure Puerto Rico's recovery is robust, effective and sustained." 

The Puerto Rico governor's office noted in a tweet Oct. 24 that the deal would be audited.

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Whitefish Energy has posted frequent updates on its Facebook page on the progress of the work. On Oct. 27, around 75 percent of Puerto Rico was still without power. 

The company was established in 2015 by two Texas investment firms and a Brazilian manufacturer of transformers.

Joe Collonnetta, a founding member of HBC Investments, which is one of the Texas investment firms behind Whitefish Energy, donated $2,700 to President Donald Trump's campaign. He donated a further $20,000 to a group that backed Trump's election campaign in 2016. In addition, he gave $30,700 to the Republican National Committee after Trump secured the Republican nomination.

The Department of the Interior released a statement on the issue.

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"Neither the Secretary nor anyone in his office have taken any meetings or action on behalf of this company and played no role in anything to do with any contracts," the statement read.

It added that Zinke knows Whitefish Energy CEO Andy Techmanski, but only because "they both live in a small town (population 6,000) where everyone knows everyone."

Whitefish Energy only had two full-time employees when the contract was signed, but has since mobilized close to 300 sub-contractors in Puerto Rico, according to the company.

"Our rates are competitive and our work is top rate," added spokesman Chris Chiames, according to ABC News.

Another question related to the deal is why Puerto Rico chose not to request a program known as mutual aid. This would have allowed the American Public Power Association to provide assistance to repair the damage.

"To date, PREPA has not requested aid from the association," APPA told ABC News. "The entire electric utility industry is standing by to send help as requested."

The governor's office noted in a tweet that PREPA's director "clarifies that the [power authority's] investments to repair the electrical system will be refundable by [FEMA]."

Sources: BBC News, ABC News / Featured Image: Staff Sgt. Michelle Y. Alvarez-Rea/U.S. Air National Guard/Wikimedia Commons / Embedded Images: Simon Edelman/U.S. Energy Department/Wikimedia Commons, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dana D. Legg/U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

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