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FEMA Official Accused of Taking Bribes While Rebuilding Puerto Rico

Sep 10, 2019
Originally published on September 10, 2019 4:54 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Federal prosecutors in Puerto Rico have accused a FEMA official of taking bribes in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. These bribes allegedly came from the then-president of an Oklahoma-based federal contractor. That contractor was one of the main companies hired to rebuild the island's devastated power grid. These charges come just days before the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. NPR's Adrian Florido is in San Juan and joins us now.

Hey, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So tell us more about these allegations. Who's been charged, and what exactly have they been accused of doing?

FLORIDO: So at a press conference this morning, the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico, Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, announced charges against Ahsha Nateef Tribble, who, after Hurricane Maria, was one of the top officials within FEMA overseeing the reconstruction of the power grid here. Also charged is Donald Keith Ellison. He's the former president of Cobra Acquisitions. That's the company that secured $1.8 billion worth of federal contracts to repair the power grid. And what they're accused of is - it's really pretty simple. The U.S. attorney said that they had a close, personal relationship and that Cobra's president would fly Tribble to meet him at hotels in the U.S., would shower her with gifts, and in exchange, Tribble used her position within FEMA to help Cobra gain lucrative contracts. The charges against them range from conspiracy to commit bribery to wire fraud to disaster fraud.

CHANG: OK. And how allegedly has this FEMA official tried to use her influence here?

FLORIDO: So one example coming from the indictment is that - so for example, after - months after the hurricane, there was this big explosion at a power substation here. A lot of people who'd already gotten their power back lost it again. And at the time, officials within the island's power utility, PREPA, said that they could make the repairs themselves. But according to the indictment, Tribble pressured PREPA to give that work to Cobra energy, which is what happened. And Cobra billed more than $600,000 for the work. Tribble's also accused of giving Ellison access to inside documents and of using her influence to help a friend within FEMA get a job with Cobra. That friend, by the way, has also been charged today.

CHANG: OK. Has there been any response so far from FEMA?

FLORIDO: FEMA sent me a statement saying that they take these accusations seriously and are cooperating with investigators but wouldn't otherwise comment. Although a FEMA spokesman did tell me that Ahsha Tribble is currently suspended without pay. And Cobra sent me a similar statement saying that they are cooperating with investigators.

CHANG: OK. I mean, President Trump has repeatedly accused officials within Puerto Rico's government of being corrupt. So I'm just curious, how much does this case play into that narrative you think?

FLORIDO: Well, I mean, look, neither of the principals involved here is Puerto Rican. The island's utility is also not accused of wrongdoing in this case. The wrongdoing is alleged to have happened at the hands of the president of an Oklahoma-based company and a longtime federal employee. I should note that the U.S. attorney says that the investigation is continuing in this case and in other corruption-related cases after Hurricane Maria.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Adrian Florido in San Juan.

Thanks, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.