After a year of meetings between FEMA, COR3 and the Municipality of Vieques, CSA Architects & Engineers was selected for the conceptual design work.

Photo by Diana Ramos Gutiérrez

CDT in Vieques, Puerto Rico

A year and four months after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced a $39.5 million obligation to rebuild the Susana Centeno Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Vieques, which Hurricane María destroyed in 2017, the Infrastructure Financing Authority (AFI), the agency to which the Municipality delegated the task of managing the project earlier this year, awarded a bid for the conceptual design of the new building to CSA Architects & Engineers, LLP, for $147,340.

Thirty-seven companies procured the documents to participate in the bidding process, and nine companies submitted proposals. After awarding the contract to CSA Architects & Engineers, the document should be signed in the next few days, AFI stated.

The company has had contracts with nearly 30 agencies, municipalities and public corporations for more than a decade for work related to technical services, design, architecture, surveying and repairs. Under Ricardo Rosselló’s administration, CSA Architects & Engineers locked down $26 million in contracts at 10 agencies, according to Comptroller records. The company has been singled out for exerting influence to obtain contracts with the government, according to previous investigations by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish).

The awarding of the contract is just one of the first steps in a long process to build a facility on the island municipality – located nine miles east of Puerto Rico – that responds to health emergencies for Viequenses, where, in the last two years, two minors have died because of inadequate health services.

It will take about two years to complete the work, the executive director of the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency (COR3), Manuel Laboy, said Wednesday.

A year has already been lost.

“It was up to the Municipality to develop the reconstruction. Unfortunately, the Municipality at that time [last year], had various difficulties to deal with and could not move the reconstruction forward,” said Laboy, after a meeting with Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator for Puerto Rico, José G. Baquero.

The announcement of the contract award comes just as another family in Vieques mourns the loss of 3-year-old boy Jahn Hill Rivera, who died on Wednesday, May 26, due to health conditions after being unable to get the medical care he needed in the Vieques health center . He was going to be airlifted to the HIMA San Pablo in  Fajardo hospital, but had to be transported back to the health center in Vieques when his condition worsened. Upon arrival, a doctor certified his death.

The following day Health Secretary Carlos Mellado ordered an investigation that would determine if there were shortcomings with the care he received at   Vieques that temporarily serves as an emergency room and health center. Thirteen-year-old Jaideliz Moreno Ventura died in the same facility in January 2020, while her family and paramedics pumped a manual ventilator because there was no mechanical ventilator to keep her breathing.

As a press spokeswoman said in a written statement, the investigation is ongoing, but did not specify when it will conclude.

“Out of respect for the family, which has requested discretion in the handling of the information that is disclosed, the Secretary will not make additional statements until the process being conducted by the Institute of Forensic Sciences is concluded. Once the investigation is complete, we will be able to issue additional comments,” she said.

Viequenses demand information

Last March, the Governor and the Legislature announced the allocation of $1 million for the work on the new health center in Vieques.

Residents of the island municipality, like activist and former municipal legislator Ismael Guadalupe, and retired nurse Zaida Torres, had misgivings about the announcement.

“It’s like when you make a lot of noise, they say something so that we shut up and stop talking,” Torres said when talking about the perception that Viequenses have about these types of promises, very similar to those made about maritime transport.

The Isla Nena residents are demanding to be informed about the status of the project.

“These issues are hijacked. The people don’t participate. The people here aren’t given participation. The people who put forward ideas are not taken into consideration,” Guadalupe said when the CPI asked him what information the community had about the process.

Before leaving his post as municipal legislator in the last week of May, Guadalupe asked for information through a resolution that he presented to the Municipal Legislature.

“In January of this year, when our mayor was sworn-in, the Governor made a commitment to the construction of a hospital. Delays cost lives. We demand information and participation,” the resolution stated.

Where is the million the Government announced for the Vieques health center?

The promised million, which came out of the Department of Health’s budget, was allocated to AFI for the management of the Vieques health center project and for the company that will carry out the conceptual design, CSA Architects & Engineers, LLP.

According to a letter that Mellado sent to AFI Executive Director Eduardo Rivera on April 15, 2021, of which the CPI got a copy, the hospital’s conceptual design must include: pediatric and adult emergency rooms; an imaging center; a vascular studies laboratory; a clinical laboratory; a delivery room; a minor surgery room; basic orthopedics with room for fracture management; a morgue; a cafeteria for menus; an administration area; and a clinical rest area.

In addition, it must have a center for primary and preventive services, which would include general, internal and family medicine; gynecology; services that include vaccinations, pediatrics, dental, psychiatry, psychology, and ophthalmology, with optometry and sale of frames. It also required four rooms equipped for teleconsultations and clinics specialized in endocrinology, urology, cardiology, dermatology and oncology.

A chemotherapy infusion center, dialysis room and hyperbaric medicine should also be considered in the conceptual design, according to what Mellado stated that was requested by the mayor, plus the recommendations of the Department of Health, to meet the needs of the population of about 8,000 residents.

AFI to oversee the project

It was Vieques Mayor José Corcino who decided that AFI should oversee the CDT project.

“Because (AFI) already had construction experience, it could do it faster and it was going to save us a couple of months of looking for a project manager, because [otherwise] we were going to have to carry out another type of construction bid to find someone. In other words, the process was going to be delayed a little more and because what I want is for us to have the hospital as soon as possible … Time passes, people continue to die and we can’t — three years, now four years after Hurricane Maria — wait four more years for a hospital. We have to get this going,” the municipal executive said.

However, following AFI’s selection as project manager, COR3 Executive Director Manuel Laboy wrote to Corcino advising him of processes he must complete so the work delegated to AFI is eligible for reimbursement from FEMA.

Among these processes is to formalize the projects through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Municipality and AFI, and request authorization from FEMA to be able to delegate the tasks through said agreement without involving a competitive contracting process, as federal regulations require.

“This, given that FEMA policies, as established in the Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide, don’t consider as eligible the granting of MOUs between government entities for permanent project work,” Laboy’s letter states.

AFI started the bidding process without this being ready, Laboy confirmed to questions from the CPI at a press conference.

“Right now, we’re working on a collaborative agreement between the Municipality and AFI to   formalize roles and responsibilities, because remember that the sub-recipient is the Municipality, so what the Municipality is saying is ‘AFI, run the project for me’ and that is formalized through an agreement. That agreement is currently under review. We’re providing technical assistance to ensure that it complies with FEMA provisions,” said Laboy.

He added that, at the same time, COR3 is waiting for FEMA to clear up “interpretations of what its policy is for this type of task.”

“Once they answer us, we believe the way is clear to move forward with AFI’s strategy. But, so far, we don’t see any problems. AFI is the project manager and the steps that have to be taken are being taken so that reconstruction can move as quickly as possible.”

CSA’s background of influences on the Government

CSA Architects & Engineers has been linked to government contracting based on influences from former Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s lobbyist and friend, Elías Sánchez, and Alberto Velázquez Piñol, representative of accounting firm BDO, and now a federal defendant.

Early in the Rosselló administration, CSA subsidiary, Consul-Tech Caribe landed a contract to manage federal funds for the Zika Program in Puerto Rico, which was promoted by Velázquez Piñol, and half a dozen high-ranking sources from the Rosselló administration and those close to CSA, assured the CPI that Sánchez was a lobbyist for that company.

CSA also got an $800,000 school inspection contract through the State Emergency Management Agency in the wake of Hurricane María, which was canceled shortly after when then-Secretary of Education Julia Keleher expressed her disagreement. A source told the CPI that Sánchez, one of the members of the Telegram chat, who’s publication resulted in Rossello’s resignation, was the one who presented the company, through Christian Sobrino, to get that contract.

In a prior interview with the CPI, the company’s President, Frederik Riefkohl, rejected any type of contractual relationship with Sánchez and Velázquez Piñol, but when confronted with emails and testimonies, he said he had previously interacted with Velázquez as “representative of the Department of Health” and “of the government.” As for Sánchez, Riefkohl admitted that he had submitted the company’s qualifications to him during Rosselló’s campaign and said he had seen him “10 times” in his lifetime.

Sánchez has assured the CPI that he has “never” “represented any entity to get contracts with the Department of Health.”

A lost year

Early last year, nine days after the death of Jaideliz Moreno Ventura at the temporary health facility, FEMA obligated $39.5 million to demolish the hurricane-damaged building and erect a new one.

FEMA, COR3 and the Municipality of Vieques agreed that the estimated cost of the project would be $49,323,985. They calculated that the municipality would receive $6.4 million for insurance and another $1 million in federal funds for mitigation and risk reduction, so the total net cost would be $43,966,328.

Of that amount, FEMA obligated 90% ($39,569,695). The Government of Puerto Rico must cover the remaining 10%, for which it plans to use CDBG-DR funds, as allowed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), said Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in Washington, Jenniffer González.

To begin the work, the prior municipal administration, led by Popular Democratic Party (PPD, in Spanish) Mayor Victor Emeric counted on Avanti Technologies Inc., to which it awarded a five-year, $12.5 million contract.

However, COR3 warned him that Avanti could not get money from FEMA as manager of the Vieques health center project because the Request for Proposals published by the Municipality that ended in their hiring only mentioned grant management services, and not projects.

Grant management covers the steps necessary to inform FEMA of all the projects that the Municipality needs, while project management consists of overseeing the construction and reimbursement processes of each development.

“If the Municipality’s intention was to hire project management services related to the construction of a particular project, those services should have been included in the original RFP (request for proposals, in English) through which Avanti was hired,” according to a letter that former COR3 Director Ottmar Chávez sent to Emeric in May 2020.

After several meetings, the Municipality of Vieques chose to publish a new RFP in September for the health center project oversight work. Then, he published another in October. The vice president of Avanti Technologies in Puerto Rico, Edgar Rentas, said in an interview with the CPI that both were declared void because none of the companies that presented a bid met the requirements.

“Then, there were the elections and other things, and it couldn’t be done,” Rentas said about the process that the new Mayor, José Corcino, who won the election for the New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) had to pick up in January 2021.

Virginia-based Avanti Technologies was incorporated in Puerto Rico in 2016. In addition to serving as a grant manager for the Municipality of Vieques, it does formulation and project management work for the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Movimiento Internacional, which has close to $13 million in obligated recovery funds from Hurricane María. In the public sector, it has had contracts with the municipalities of Fajardo and Yabucoa for legal, financial and investment advice.

Rentas said they are a small company that subcontracts other professionals.

Now that the firm won’t have the project management task as part of its duties with the Municipality of Vieques, and will only act as a grant manager, it must sign an amendment with the mayor that will cut the amount of the contract by about $8 million, he estimated.

For Rentas, the work dynamic between FEMA and COR3 is the main obstacle to moving forward.

“What’s happening here is that the entire program, all policies and procedures, are developed between FEMA and COR3 and there’s no participation of the sub-recipients,” Rentas said.

 Reporter Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez contributed to this story.

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