FEMA Officers and Contractor Accused of Puerto Rico Disaster Fraud

This June 18, 2018, file photo shows an aerial view of the Amelia neighborhood in the municipality of Catano, east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera, File)

(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.

The deal immediately raised eyebrows, with one reporter from The Intercept profiling the company in an article titled “There’s a Shady Puerto Rico Contract You Didn’t Hear About,” which was published less than two weeks after the contract was inked. The total compensation under the initial agreement had been limited to $200 million, but over the next several months, five other amendments were signed, raising the value of the first contract to more than $945.4 million by February 2018.

In March 2018, Cobra signed a second contract that sweetened the pot by another $900 million.

Throughout this period, prosecutors claim, Tribble and Ellison had been involved in a bribery scheme that extended through April 2019. Ellison allegedly picked up the tab for Tribble’s repeated air travel and hotel accommodations, plus a helicopter tour of Puerto Rico, personal security services and use of his credit card. Prosecutors say that Ellison also helped Tribble find a place to live in New York and let her use his apartment in San Juan.

On March 22, 2018, Tribble allegedly sent an email to Ellison “inquiring about [his] intent” toward Patterson.

“I ran into JoJo last night at Ben & Jerry’s,” Ellison responded to Tribble’s personal address that same day, according to the indictment. “I asked her directly if she was serious. She said yes, I told her to get with Michelle to start the paperwork. I was dead serious and sincere when I said I would take care of her. She will be our rotation coordinator located here in PR to start with.”

Two days later, Tribble sent Ellison and Patterson an email with the subject line “Connecting you by gmail” with a one-line message “Jo – Per our convo,” according to the indictment.

Cobra signed its second contract with PREPA on March 26, 2018, only two days after this cryptic message.

Cobra’s unnamed director of human resources formally sent an “offer letter” to Patterson’s personal address on June 1, 2018, outlining an annual salary of $160,000 with the possibility of up to a 30% bonus plus per diem for a potential compensation of $274,000, prosecutors say.

Two days after Patterson received this offer, Tribble allegedly forwarded an email chain to Ellison showing that she had pressed PREPA on late payments to Cobra. The subject of one email read: “$200M behind in payment to Cobra — stop work looming again,” according to the indictment.

A FEMA spokesman said that the agency is cooperating with federal investigators.

“The agency takes allegations of employee misconduct extremely seriously and holds all employees to the highest ethical standards—requiring them to protect government resources and place public service over private gain in everything they do,” said the spokesman, who issued a statement under the condition of anonymity.

Tribble is currently on non-duty, non-pay status at FEMA, without official access to the agency’s facilities, systems or records during the pendency of her prosecution, the spokesman said. Patterson left FEMA in July 2018 to work for Cobra Energy LLC.

The indictment suggests that prosecutors gathered extensive evidence from emails, private and disposable cellphones, Apple iMessages, SMS texts, and photographs.

On Sept. 8, 2018, prosecutors claim to have found Ellison and Tribble at Puerto Rico’s Casino del Mar, where the former bought $3,000 in chips and surveillance footage allegedly showed the two of them in the casino together at the “cash cage as well as the gambling tables.”

On top of potentially lengthy prison sentences for disaster fraud, honest services wire fraud and false statements, prosecutors are also seeking the forfeiture of Ellison’s Myco boat trailer, Caterpillar tractor and hydraulic excavator, 2018 Invincible 40-foot catamaran, and millions of dollars from the businessman’s various bank accounts.

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