Series

The close relationship between the FEMA official under federal investigation and Noel Zamot

Before a new contract was granted to Cobra Acquisitions, Tribble met with Zamot at the Fiscal Control Board’s office to discuss company-related matters. Executives from Cobra and Filsinger Energy Partners, who serves as an adviser to the Rosselló administration in the PREPA restructuring, also participated.

30 mayo, 2019

Four months before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) granted a new contract to Cobra Acquisitions to restore the energy system destroyed by Hurricane María, Fiscal Control Board representatives met with the FEMA official under investigation, Ahsha Tribble, to discuss matters related to that company.

Specifically, the Board’s former Revitalization Coordinator, Noel Zamot, marked “accept” to a meeting request for Jan. 24, 2018 under the subject “Cobra/FOMB Discussion.” (FOMB, as the Board is known for its initials in English.) The meeting was convened by Tribble, assistant regional administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region II, which includes Puerto Rico.

The FEMA official was removed from her post May 14 after federal authorities began an investigation against her for allegedly interfering with the hiring of Cobra Acquisitions, according to The Wall Street Journal. Cobra is one of the three main companies PREPA contracted for the reconstruction of the electrical system after the hurricane on Sept. 20, 2017.

Photo provided by FEMA

Ahsha Tribble

“Cobra/FOMB Discussion”

According to emails obtained by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, for its initials in Spanish) following a lawsuit over access to information, Tribble convened the meeting for Jan. 24, 2018 at the Board’s offices in Hato Rey.

Also invited to the meeting were: Cobra Acquisitions President Keith Ellison and the company’s former Vice President of Operations, Ken Kinsey; two executives from Filsinger Energy Partners, Todd Filsinger (PREPA’s chief financial advisor since December 2017) and Nathan Pollak; and Christopher Harich, general counsel for FEMA.

Also summoned was Zamot, who resigned from his post and concluded his work with the Board on Mar. 15 in the midst of a media scandal for his comments on possible illicit actions by the government in the evaluation of contracts.

Tribble wrote:

“We will meet tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. at FOMB to discuss emergency work extensions, RFP’s, and process flow to make sure we are all on the same page.”

Cobra obtained its first contract with PREPA on Oct. 19, 2017, six days after applying to do business in Puerto Rico at the State Department and almost a month after Hurricane María struck. Four days after the Jan. 24 meeting, contract 2018-P00028 was amended for the fourth time to double the initial amount and push it up to $445 million. A month later, in February, another amendment would raise the amount to $945 million.

The second contract that Cobra received (2018-P000170) was granted on May 26, 2018, five months before the first expired. The agreement was made in spite of the Board’s observations regarding the lack of details about the costs of the repair work, its scope and how its performance would be measured, as well as the absence of a verification of the offer.

Initially, this last agreement, which expired on May 25, 2019, was for $900 million. The combined amount of both contracts to rebuild the island’s power system amounted to $1.8 billion — money that FEMA would reimburse in full to PREPA, the public corporation’s former Executive Director Justo González told Noticel.

“The intention of the Jan. 24, 2018 meeting was to inform on the status of the restoration process with all the parties present. The meeting was held at the FOMB’s office. The FOMB emphasized that any contract or amendment to a contract that exceeded $10 million had to be approved by the Board,” Tribble’s attorney, Leo Aldridge, stated in writing to the CPI.

“The only one who can say if that meeting is part of the ongoing [federal] investigation is the Office of the Inspector General,” the lawyer added.

Is the federal investigation that was initiated against FEMA’s Tribble related to the letter the Board sent to PREPA on May 24, 2018, in which it has concerns about Cobra Acquisitions’ hiring? the CPI asked the Board.

“No,” was the entity’s categorical response.

Aldridge added that awarding contracts was not Tribble’s responsibility, but rather PREPA’s, with the Board’s approval. “What guided these entities in their decision-making can be answered by those who lead these organizations,” the attorney said.

Zamot: Liaison between the Board and FEMA

This is not the only meeting that Tribble and Zamot had during the recovery period after the hurricane. According to the emails reviewed by the CPI, since October 2017, weeks before the federal official was transferred to Puerto Rico to be in charge of the energy sector’s recovery, both were already emailing each other.

The former Revitalization Coordinator had been designated as the liaison between the Fiscal Control Board and FEMA in the recovery process. “I’ll be available to help grease or connect anything between FOMB/FEMA as required,” Zamot wrote in an email dated Oct. 17, 2017.

“I am glad that the FEMA/FOMB relationship is well received, as we are working toward the same goal,” Tribble replied on Oct. 20, 2017 while they reported to each other on the work done on energy recovery. In the coming months, they maintained a close relationship in which they communicated weekly, including by phone, on the status of their work, what the most important issues on their agendas were, commented on the weather and family visits, talked about the fiscal plans, PREPA matters, traded contacts and introduced each other to officials and entrepreneurs who were interested in recovery work.  

Despite this proximity and Zamot’s sudden departure from his post, the Board denied that federal authorities had approached them, conducted an interrogation or requested information related to any investigation against Zamot. In addition, they said they had “no” knowledge that there was an investigation against him.

Most of the communications in which Tribble appears also included Zamot, who during his role as Revitalization Coordinator always kept a special focus on energy issues, since they were the ones he most wanted to promote as critical projects under Title V of the PROMESA Law, which created his position. However, after 20 months in office and two months after his resignation, there is only one critical project approved in the area of public housing, which is being investigated by the Legislature.

The Board tried to put Zamot in charge of PREPA in a sort of receivership, but the government of Puerto Rico resisted the appointment in the courts and the official was never able to reign over PREPA.

Judge Laura Taylor Swain, in charge of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy through Title III of PROMESA, denied Zamot’s designation as the public corporation’s “Principal Transformation Officer.” This, however, was not an impediment for the Board official to continue discussing PREPA matters with federal and private company representatives, many times without the presence of the public corporation’s officials, according to the emails.

Tribble’s and Zamot’s involvement in energy issues was such that after the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, made a public announcement about the PREPA privatization on Jan. 22, 2018, Tribble’s email was quick to materialize. “There is interest to get some clarification on the intent to ‘privatize’ PREPA. I believe it would be helpful for you to explain the plan versus what is in a press release,” Tribble wrote in an email dated Jan. 27, 2018 in which she connected Zamot with two officials from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB.)

Although he already knew that he did not have the power as PREPA’s Transformation Officer, Zamot replied:

“Ahsha, thank you for the introduction! Andrea [Goel], Robert [Klein], I’d be delighted to connect and share the latest as we see it on the governor’s intent to issue a concession for operating the T&D infrastructure in Puerto Rico.”

On Feb. 1, 2018, both coincided at a Board meeting in New York in which the future of Puerto Rico’s power utility was discussed. That day, the FEMA official denounced the difficulties she faced with PREPA due to the existing bureaucracy. “When you have eight layers to approve jobs, that does not work for us,” Tribble said in the public session in which she also criticized the lack of materials, the problems to get to and restore power service, the “leadership challenges” at PREPA, and the “lack of confidence” of the “partners” to do business with Puerto Rico. Zamot would make similar claims upon leaving his post.

Days later, Tribble and Zamot also coincided at a meeting convened by an official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture entitled “PR Energy Stakeholders and Recovery Partners.”  During the meeting “long-term recovery and resilience needs for the energy sector” would be discussed,  as well as the allocations under the HR 4667 bill and the “recovery plan.” Also invited to the meeting were government officials, such as the director of the Public Energy Policy Office, Francisco Rullán-Caparrós, and the Public-Private Partnerships Authority Executive Director Omar Marrero, as well as officials of the armed forces. Luis Bernal, energy consultant at the USDA Rural Development office — an entity that offers financial assistance to private energy, housing and business projects — convened the meeting on behalf of FEMA and other “federal allies.” In the past, Bernal worked in the government of Puerto Rico and his last position was executive director of the Energy Affairs Administration during the Luis Fortuño administration.

Photo by Cindy Burgos Alvarado | Center for Investigative Journalism

Luis Bernal

The email invitation was “withdrawn” (recalled) two days later, but Rullán confirmed to the CPI that the meeting took place and was “one of many that we went to.” He said more than 20 federal and state agencies participated, and that Bernal led the meeting and prepared reports. Although he said a private company hired by FEMA participated, he denied that Cobra was at the meeting.

Zamot connected Tribble with MasTec Renewables

In addition to Cobra Acquisitions, PREPA contracted two other companies to restore power service after the hurricane: Foreman Electric Services and MasTec Renewables Puerto Rico, which had lower rates than the first.

According to the Board’s emails, it was Zamot who connected a representative of MasTec with Tribble on Feb. 13, 2018. Under the subject “Introduction: question about future recovery work,” Zamot introduced Tribble and Carlos García-Pérez, a lawyer that represented that company. The email also included Carlos Torres, designated by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, as the only contact person (“single point of contact” or SPOC) for energy restoration processes at PREPA.

According to part of Zamot’s email

“Ahsha, Carlos, Mr. Carlos Garcia-Perez, Esq, was asking for information on future recovery work in PR. I mentioned ongoing efforts with PREPA contracting processes and he asked for your information. He represents a firm interested in learning more about future recovery work,”

The email continues with a presentation of Tribble’s responsibilities, and who “understands the requirements better than anyone,” and Torres, “a seasoned utility executive, currently serving in the ‘Storm Boss’ role, coordinating all recovery activity on the island for PREPA.”

García-Pérez responded, copying Tribble, Zamot and Díaz:

“I represent MasTec in their affairs in Puerto Rico. Well before hurricanes Irma and María, MasTec was doing business in PR so we have deep knowledge on how to work in PR…at present, we are very active in rebuilding the telecommunication and power infrastructure on the island and would like to increase our presence. I had a great reconnection with Noel last week and he mentioned both of your names. I would very much like the opportunity to personally meet you and present to you our capabilities,”

According to Comptroller’s Office records, the first contract that PREPA granted to MasTec (2018-P00171) was signed on May 29, 2018, three months after that first contact with Tribble and six days after the Board presented in writing a series of objections to the agreement.

Among these were the lack of clarity in the scope of the power restoration work and its cost, few details on the methodology for those estimates and absence of comparison of the work that MasTec would do versus Cobra, versus a third contractor. The contract, for an initial $500 million, would run through May 25, 2019, but on May 7 a new agreement (2019-P00102) was was signed for an additional $5.7 million to continue with the recovery work until June 30 of this year. Although the company registered on the island in 2010, these were the first contracts with the government for which there is an electronic record. A recent third contract with the Municipality of Caguas is also included, but for services for “recreational areas.”

Approaches to Tesla and RMI

Starting with their first email interactions, Tribble and Zamot exchanged contacts of people interested in doing business in Puerto Rico. After participating in the Caribbean Renewables Energy Forum (CREF) in Miami in October 2017, the former Revitalization Coordinator put the FEMA official in touch with representatives from Tesla, a car and battery company, and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit entity that promotes renewable energy.

Zamot knew that RMI was organizing an event in New York, so he thought that putting them in contact with the people from Tesla — in this case, with the director of Business Policy and Development, Rohan Patel, and lobbyist Hasan Nazar — was a good idea. But he also linked them with Tribble and with two attorneys from McKinsey & Co., the Board’s chief advisor.

“Hasan, as we mentioned last week, RMI is running an initial effort to start a conversation on possible solutions to PR’s energy future. We welcome their expertise and look forward to seeing how those ideas could integrate into the FOMB’s transformation plan for PREPA. Connecting the dots to see if there is the possibility of collaboration. 

I’m copying Ahsha Tribble from FEMA, with whom I work very closely in PR; Rohan Patel from Tesla; and Aaron Bielenberg and Sarah Brody from McKinsey, who have been leading the PREPA transformation plan to date,” says part of the email sent on Oct. 25, 2017.

In November, RMI published a tender for three microgrids in three Puerto Rican schools. Meanwhile, Tesla is currently one of the companies that may do business with the government of Puerto Rico through a public-private partnership. The company appears as one of the four finalists to carry out the first energy storage project on the island, according to what the PPP director said at a press conference in March in which he presented the advances of the public-private partnerships that the government will support.

The former Revitalization Coordinator also introduced Tribble to a graduate student from MIT, from where Zamot is an alumnus. Part of Zamot’s message dated March 15, 2018 reads:

“Ahsha, Mr. Jari Navarro is currently in the MIT Sloan Executive MBA program, and is working a microgrid project with the Puerto Rico energy commission. In his ‘day job,’ he runs a water purification plant in Puerto Rico for a major industrial provider, so he is well aware of the island’s infrastructure challenges. He wanted to connect with someone who had insight into some of the USACE [U.S. Corps of Engineers] led microgrids, such as the initial one in Yabucoa,”

The company that Navarro ran until March 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile, was PET Plastics, the bottling plant for Coca Cola Bottlers in Puerto Rico, in Cidra, associated with Alberto de la Cruz. Zamot told Navarro that Tribble was “the right person to provide information on regional electrification on the island.”

For his part, Tribble introduced Zamot to his “good friend and colleague” Pedro Pizarro, CEO of Edison International, the “parent company of Southern California Edison (SCE), one of the largest electric utility companies in the United States,” according to the company’s website.

Tribble wrote to Zamot on Oct. 22, 2017:

“He [Pizarro] has some ideas from the private sector that he would like to share with you. I spoke to him yesterday. I reached out to Rohan [from Tesla] as well. I hope to speak to them tomorrow. I hope your travels are going well,”

In the email thread, Zamot told Tribble that he would meet with members of the FEMA legal team and the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and asked her to meet to discuss matters in which the Board was “moving pretty fast.” Tribble added she believed Pizarro and “others” were willing to create a small “task force” to present recommendations for recovery work.

My guess is it will likely to be consistent with the government’s vision and with the Board’s fiscal plan,” she added.

“I definitely welcome your participation,” Zamot replied.

¡APOYA AL CENTRO DE PERIODISMO INVESTIGATIVO!

Necesitamos tu apoyo para seguir haciendo y ampliando nuestro trabajo.