Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello on Tuesday promised lawmakers he would lead the “most transparent disaster reconstruction in American history,” nearly 60 days after Hurricane Maria hit.
Rossello assured the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that half of the island’s power generation will be restored by Wednesday, although he did not say how many households and businesses remain without power.
He said he is considering ways to reform the island’s much-maligned, bankrupt power utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, including privatizing it.
The island is “evaluating public and private ownership or a combination” for the state-run PREPA “to achieve reliability and resiliency in the long-term, he said. He also said he hopes the utility gets 20 to 25 percent of its power from renewable energy sources within five years.
Rossello on Monday requested $94.4 billion from Congress to pay for damages from Maria. Of that, he asked for $17 billion for “power grid and resiliency.”
While senators expressed their desire to help Puerto Rico's citizens, they called for accountability relating to PREPA’s decision to sign a $300 million, no-bid contract with small Montana firm Whitefish Energy.
“The welfare of the Puerto Rican people on the island is my No. 1 concern, but I will not stop making sure U.S. taxpayers are not gouged in this process,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the committee's top Democrat, in her opening statement.
“The reason why we have mutual aid contracts is to rebuild at cost. So the notion someone comes in to gouge the Puerto Rico government and U.S. taxpayer, charging them exorbitant rates, than writing a contract so it can’t be reviewed property, was a great injustice to the U.S. taxpayer.”
Instead of activating "mutual aid" arrangements with other utilities, PREPA decided to hire Whitefish, even though other mutual aid agreements in Florida, Texas and many other states have helped U.S. utilities rebuild following natural disasters.
Rossello said he rejected requesting aid from other states to repair the electrical grid in favor of seeking assistance from the Army Corps of Engineers and Whitefish.
After PREPA canceled the contract on Oct. 29, Puerto Rico eventually sought the mutual aid agreements.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, suggested Puerto Rico should be included in the False Claims Act so that citizens can sue over “corrupt federal contracts,” such as the Whitefish deal.
“Corruption and mismanagement have been a problem that's plagued PREPA for decades,” Lee said. “If we don't start exercising meaningful oversight with every contract signed [by PREPA], we can be looking at decades of ongoing problems, perhaps decades of [Justice Department] corruption prosecutions.”
He said he expects PREPA has entered into other “corrupt” contracts.
“It doesn't take a biologist to know a Whitefish doesn't swim alone,” Lee said. “I am sure you will find a school of similar contracts wth graft and greed at the expense of hard-working families.”
Rossello insisted Tuesday he “acted immediately” after learning about problems with the Whitefish contract, and said he supports the investigations into the contract.
At least four congressional committees are investigating the deal. The FBI and the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security are also investigating the contract.
"I am a willing participant in this effort,” Rossello said. "Investigations have to go on. We are very much committed to transparency.”
Rossello also will testify before the House Natural Resources Committee Tuesday afternoon.
A U.S. federal judge on Monday rejected a request from Puerto Rico’s independent oversight board to appoint an emergency manager to oversee PREPA after Rossello objected to the move.