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Sierra Club begins stirring up trouble for Ryan Zinke over Whitefish's Puerto Rico power contract

102517 Sierra jumps in ring over Whitefish js photo
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks on the Trump Administration's energy policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The environmental group Sierra Club officially stepped into the Whitefish controversy on Wednesday to push for a full investigation into what it says shows profiteering on the part of the Trump administration over restoring electricity in Puerto Rico.

The Montana-based energy services firm Whitefish has received a $300 million contract from U.S. island territory's state-run utility. Democrats and others immediately speculated that such a large contract for a company that employs only two people may have been a favor to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who hails from the same small town in Montana as Whitefish.

Although Zinke denies the accusation, the environmental group is calling for probes of the contract in both the Senate and the House.

"If this is what it looks like, Zinke and the Trump administration are using the devastation in Puerto Rico, where people are actually still losing electricity a full month after the disaster, to help their friends profit," said Ramon Cruz, a member of Sierra Club's national board who is from Puerto Rico.

Cruz is a former member of the island's energy commission and environmental quality board. "Congress needs to step in and investigate this shady deal immediately," Cruz said Wednesday.

Other environmental groups began targeting members of the Trump Cabinet over the private chartered flight scandal that led Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to resign. The group Friends of the Earth flew a plane over an oil conference last week asking Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to pay back the $58,000 he spent on the non-commercial flights. But it's not just to get him to pay back the money. The real goal of the campaign is to get Pruitt to resign, according to the group. It is not clear if Sierra Club's goal is similar with Zinke.

The Sierra Club began circulating a one-page email explainer of the situation Tuesday heavily weighted toward Zinke's involvement in the contract being awarded to Whitefish.

"Despite public denials from Zinke and Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski that the two had been in contact around the contract, multiple signs point to a close relationship that raises serious questions," the email read.

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, asked the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog that serves Congress, to investigate the Whitefish deal.

"Today, I am calling on the Government Accountability Office to investigate the circumstances surrounding the multi-million dollar contract awarded to Whitefish Energy — a brand new company with two employees," Cantwell said Tuesday.

Cantwell's request is the first concrete step that lawmakers have said they would take to investigate the contract award after it was reported late Monday.

The Republican chairwoman of the Senate energy committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, told reporters that she wants "to find out more about it because this is quite a substantial contract and one that is really important for the people of Puerto Rico right now."

Senior members from both parties on the House Natural Resources Committee said Tuesday that they are looking into the matter as well.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, wants the Whitefish contract "voided," she said in an interview with Yahoo News published Wednesday.

Cruz called the contract award "alarming," saying the $300 million contract "should be voided right away and a proper process which is clear, transparent, legal, moral and ethical should take place."