(CN) – After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s energy grid two years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency official in charge of planning and coordinating the recovery of the commonwealth's energy sector oversaw two contracts that ballooned to more than $1.8 billion with a Delaware-based energy company that had formed less than a year earlier.
Federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment Tuesday against the former president of Cobra Acquisitions LLC, and two then-FEMA officials, accusing the trio of an expansive bribery scheme involving first-class airfare, helicopter rides, luxury hotel rooms, casino gambling and a lucrative revolving door.
FEMA’s deputy regional manager Ahsha Nateef Tribble, who has been suspended in the wake of the corruption scandal, had been assigned the sector lead for power and infrastructure after the Category 5 storm laid waste to the commonwealth’s aging electric grid. She faces two-thirds of the charges contained in the 15-count, 48-page indictment secretly filed in Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan on Sept. 3.
Prosecutors claim that Tribble was bribed by Cobra’s then-president Donald Keith Ellison, who secured a job for the third member of the conspiracy: Jovanda “JoJo” Patterson, who then held a less than $100,000-a-year job as FEMA’s deputy chief of staff for San Juan.
Patterson allegedly traded that job for more than double that amount at Cobra, at the same time the contractor had been seeking payments from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, the commonwealth’s debt-addled utility.
U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Velez slammed the trio in a statement for allegedly seeking their own enrichment when the island had been most vulnerable.
“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane Maria,” Rodriguez-Velez said in a statement. “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.”
In a phone interview, Ellison's attorney William Leone emphasized that Cobra's contract went through review by dozens of agencies, committees and people.
"Keith Ellison has done nothing wrong, and this indictment really is a strained effort to criminalize what are lawful and appropriate relationships," said Leone, a litigation partner at the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. "These people down in Puerto Rico were working 24 hours a day to get the lights turned on and they did it."
In July, Leone appeared in court in California unsuccessfully trying to force the government to hand over records used to authorize the seizure of $4.4 million in cash and securities from Ellison's bank accounts along with his boat, pickup truck and farm equipment. A federal judge ruled at the time that those files would remain under seal.
"We’ve not been hiding from this," Leone told Courthouse News. "This is the first time in four months that the government said what’s on their mind."
Tribble's attorney Bridget Moore from Baker Botts did not immediately respond to an email request for comment after business hours.
PREPA signed its first contract with Cobra on Oct. 19, 2017, less than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico.