San Juan mayor calls for canceling 'alarming' contract for Puerto Rican power repairs


WASHINGTON — A $300 million contract to fix Puerto Rico’s hurricane-damaged power grid that was given to a tiny Montana company should be voided, says San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who said the process of awarding the no-bid contract raised ethical and legal questions. In an interview with Yahoo News on Tuesday evening, Yulin described the contract as “alarming.”

As of Wednesday morning, 75 percent of Puerto Rico does not have power as a result of damage from Hurricane Maria. The storm hit the island, which is a U.S. territory, on Sept. 20.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority signed the contract with Montana’s Whitefish Energy last month. At the time, the firm had just two full-time employees. The contract was awarded without a competitive bidding process. Yulin, the mayor of Puerto Rico’s largest city, described the Montana company as inadequate and said there appears to be a lack of “due diligence” behind the contract.

“The contract should be voided right away and a proper process which is clear, transparent, legal, moral, and ethical should take place,” Yulin said.

“It seems like what the Puerto Rican people are going to be paying for, or the American people are going to be paying for, is an intermediary that doesn’t know what is at stake here and that really has to subcontract everything,” she said of Whitefish. “What we need is somebody that can get the job done and that has the expertise to get the job done.”

Yulin, who has been a persistent critic of President Trump’s handling of the storm damage on the island, said Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are facing a “life and death situation” over one month after the hurricane made landfall.

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The most devastating images of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico
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The most devastating images of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Luis Lugo and Awilda Valdez bath in spring water since they have no running water in their home since Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread, severe damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grids as well as agricultural destruction after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Hector Ojeda and Sonia Robles and Tony Ojeda cross a river on foot after the bridge was washed away when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 25: A man helps a kid cross the San Lorenzo River in Morovis. Residents of San Lorenzo neighborhood can't access their houses because the river destroyed the bridge that communicate them with the main road of access. The mountain town of Morovis, in the south west of San Juan, is one of the most affected after the pass of Hurricane Mar�. Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Maria Martinez stands next to her house which was damaged by Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa in eastern Puerto Rico on September 28, 2017. A week after the Category Four storm stuck, the White House said US President Donald Trump had made it easier for fuel and water supplies to arrive to the ravaged island of 3.4 million US citizens. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 28, 2017: After eight hours in line, Solymlar Duprey, age 47, holds her daughter Miabella Lawston, age 5, as they try to get on an evacuation cruise ship leaving San Juan. 'The situation is so critical. There is no electricity, fuel, water,' said Duprey. She was trying to locate her confirmation number to board the cruise ship. A Royal Caribbean cruise ship is evacuating over 2,000 people from Puerto Rico, St. John, and St. Thomas free of charge. People are attempting to get off of the island as lack of fuel, electricity and running water has crippled Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Maria Olivieri removes a tree branch from her backyard a week after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, on September 27, 2017. The US island territory, working without electricity, is struggling to dig out and clean up from its disastrous brush with the hurricane, blamed for at least 33 deaths across the Caribbean. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Irma Maldanado stands with Sussury her parrot in what is left of her home that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Residents with gas canisters wait for fuel after Hurricane Maria in the Miramar neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. President�Donald Trump�said he will travel to Puerto Rico to survey damage. He told reporters that the federal government is 'doing a really good job' in relief efforts and has shipped 'massive amounts' of food and water. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A vehicle drives through streets filled with floodwater near destroyed homes from Hurricane Maria in this aerial photograph taken above Barrio Obrero in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island last week, knocking out electricity throughout the island. The territory is facing weeks, if not months, without service as utility workers repair�power�plants and lines that were already falling apart. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
AIBONITO, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 24: People wait in line for water as they wait for gas, electrical and water grids to be repaired September 24, 2017 in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Customers stand in line outside a grocery store in the town of Dorado, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Trump�ordered the Jones Act to be waived for shipments to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico immediately�at the request of Governor�Ricardo Rossello, White House press secretary�Sarah Sanders�said Thursday. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski /Bloomberg via Getty Images
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 22: Power lines and fallen trees block a sidewalk at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, after Hurricane Maria at Ponce de Leon Avenue in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 22, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: Yancy Leon who has been waiting in line for two days to get an American Airlines flight out of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport continues to wait as she tries to escape the conditions after Hurricane Maria passed through the island on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Some of the people have waited days at the airport in hope of getting onto a plane after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Workers fix a light fixture at the San Jorge Children's Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Trump�ordered the Jones Act to be waived for shipments to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico immediately�at the request of Governor�Ricardo Rossello, White House press secretary�Sarah Sanders�said Thursday. Photographer: John Taggart /Bloomberg via Getty Images
Travelers stand in line outside of Luis Muoz Marn International Airport after Hurricane Maria disrupted flight service in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. President�Donald Trump�said he may temporarily suspend a law that restricts the use of foreign ships operating in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports in order to accelerate the delivery of aid to Puerto Rico, where his administration faces mounting criticism over its response to Hurricane Maria. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/ Bloomberg
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“Most of the people in Puerto Rico still don’t have any electricity or any energy. And we’re not talking about wanting energy to have air conditioners. We’re talking about having energy to use it as a motor for our economic development, to have appropriate surgical facilities, to be able to have our children go back to school,” she said.

According to the Washington Post, Whitefish Energy’s chief executive, Andy Techmanski, has links to Trump’s secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke. The firm is based in Zinke’s hometown, and one of Zinke’s sons previously worked at one of Techmanski’s construction sites. Both the secretary’s office and Whitefish deny Zinke played any role in the firm’s Puerto Rico contract. Zinke’s office told the Post that Whitefish is based in a small town where “everybody knows everybody.” Whitefish also said it is up to the task of repairing the power grid and that, as of Monday, it had 280 workers in Puerto Rico.

In addition to seeing Whitefish’s deal “voided,” Yulin said she wants to see a “bidding process” and greater transparency for other rebuilding contracts on the island.

“Every contract that comes out needs to be a public document. … This is one of the things that we are asking for and the due diligence that goes towards that contract also needs to be public documents,” said Yulin. She added, “Not just for the Puerto Rican people to see. This is U.S. taxpayers’ money. I don’t care if the dollar comes from a Puerto Rican or from a Hawaiian. It’s a dollar.”

Along with the lack of power on the island, over 25 percent of Puerto Ricans do not have reliable access to drinking water.

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People collect mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People collect mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Madelyn Matos washes her hair as her boyfriend Jan Marcos Chaparro cleans his car with mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People collect mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A man carries a case of water away from an HH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after soldiers working with 101st Airborne Division's "Dustoff" unit dropped off relief supplies during recovery efforts following Hurricane Maria, in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON TIRADO" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Madelyn Matos (L) and her boyfriend Jan Marcos Chaparro do their laundry with mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People collect mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People collect mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A family waits as a man fills drums with potable water brought to their small mountain community once a day after Hurricane Maria crippled utilities near Guayama, Puerto Rico October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
People collect mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People collect mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People collect mountain spring water, after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Corozal, Puerto Rico October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
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“I’ve seen people drinking from creeks, mothers just holding their babies saying, ‘Please help me,’” Yulin said. “The federal response has been inadequate. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment.”

Puerto Rico was facing a fiscal crisis before the storm damage. Yulin said she wants to see the island’s cities, which had to cut their budgets, receive money from disaster relief appropriations by Congress. Yulin is also seeking repeal of the Jones Act, which requires using American owned and operated vessels for goods shipped between U.S. ports. After criticism, the Trump administration granted Puerto Rico a 10-day waiver from the law. Critics have argued the island should get a longer extension to expedite aid.

“Let’s get some of the bureaucracy out of the way,” said Yulin.

In the last week, Yulin said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s delivery of food and water was improving and that the Department of Homeland Security helped her navigate that process. But she said the federal response still has a long way to go to meet the needs of the Puerto Rican people.

“Is it where it’s supposed to be? No. If I hadn’t had the private donations and the NGOs’ donations, I couldn’t feed people,” she said.

Yulin said many Americans have come from the mainland to volunteer with the relief effort on Puerto Rico.

“I want to make sure that people understand that we know the difference between President Trump and the good-hearted people, and the good-natured people of the United States. We know they’re not one and the same,” said Yulin.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York City Democrat who was the first Puerto Rican-born woman elected to Congress, has said she believes the island’s residents are being treated differently from other U.S. citizens because they are predominantly Latino. Yulin agreed with that assessment.

“It’s because we’re a colony of the United States to begin with. … And people have danced around that word and they don’t want to say it. … We are a colony of the United States,” Yulin said, adding, “Yes, there is racism. There is discrimination. Mr. Trump may have the most powerful job in the world, but that does not make him a respectful person.”

Yulin described the president as “the face of inefficiency, bureaucracy and ineffectiveness.” Trump gave himself high marks for the federal response to the storm damage in Puerto Rico. He previously responded to the mayor’s critiques on Twitter, where he accused her of having “poor leadership ability” and claimed she was “told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Critics have suggested Yulin’s attacks on Trump’s hurricane response are motivated by a desire to run for governor of Puerto Rico. Yulin belongs to the island’s Popular Democratic Party and said she is allied with the mainland Democratic party. She added that her criticism of Trump is not partisan and that she has no intention of running for governor.

Yulin said she does “not care what Mr. Trump thinks about me.”

“This is not about his ego. This is about his unwillingness to help the people of Puerto Rico and to do his job,” said Yulin. “He can come at me all he wants. I’m here. Bring it on.”

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