FEMA official arrested for taking bribes amid Hurricane Maria recovery

A Federal Emergency Management Agency official was arrested on Tuesday as part of a federal investigation into bribery and fraud during Puerto Rico’s post-Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.

Ahsha Nateef Tribble ― a deputy regional administrator leading FEMA’s power restoration work after the September 2017 storm ― was indicted Tuesday by the Justice Department for allegedly taking bribes from Donald Keith Ellison, the former head of the energy company Cobra, which was contracted to do electric recovery work after the hurricane.

According to the DOJ, Cobra received two contracts valued at around $1.8 billion from Puerto Rico’s electricity authority, PREPA, paid with federal funds from FEMA.

Tribble, Ellison and former FEMA employee Jovanda R. Patterson were all arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and “disaster fraud,” among others. The Justice Department says all three went to Puerto Rico after the storm in late 2017 and “used Tribble’s positions in FEMA to benefit and enrich themselves and defraud the United States.” 

(Tribble was placed on administrative leave in May amid the investigation, and is currently in “non-duty, non-pay status,” according to FEMA.)  

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Chickens stand at the entrance to a house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
People gather to chat outside a mini-market that uses electricity from a generator, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 12, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
A house partially destroyed by hurricane Maria and illuminated with electricity from a generator stands in the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 13, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
David Lopez walks out of his house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Karla Gerrido works on her computer in front of a fan that works with electricity from a generator, at her house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Miguel Rosario Lopez watches a television that works using electricity from a generator, while his wife Milagros Jimenez walks through their house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Chickens walk through a house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Wanda Ramos looks out from the house of her husband's family where she is living after her house was totally destroyed by hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 12, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Itzaida Planas walks to the house of a neighbour, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 9, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
A car drives down a street during the night at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 13, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Franco Deaza (L) carries a water container into his family's house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Samuel Vasquez rebuilds his house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, while his wife Ysamar Figueroa looks on, whilst carrying their son Saniel, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Houses damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Maria stand at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Carlos Ventura carries a corrugated metal sheet to be used for a ceiling, while he helps a neighbour to rebuild her house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 9, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Milagros Jimenez helps her husband to rebuild their house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Joe Quirindongo tries to repair a makeshift tent where he keeps some belongings at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 9, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Yeriel Cruz, 4, looks out of the window of his family house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 9, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Milagros Jimenez poses for a picture at her house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 9, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Hector Martinez gives cookies to his dog at the house of his girlfriend Maria Vega Lastra, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Houses partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria are seen at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 9, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
Jorge Salgado poses for a picture next to a house he built with parts of his house, which was destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 12, 2017. Salgado said: "I lost everything, but we have to keep living". Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
A woman washes her car in front of houses which were partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 9, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
A handwritten address sign is attached to a post on a street at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 9, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins 
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A federal investigation by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that Tribble and Ellison had a “personal relationship” from October 2017 to April 2019, in which the Cobra head gave Tribble things like the use of a personal helicopter, hotel rooms, airfare and credit card access.

He also got Patterson, whom the Justice Department described as Tribble’s “friend,” a job at one of Cobra’s affiliated companies. In exchange, Tribble allegedly applied pressure on PREPA and FEMA to give recovery work to Cobra and speed up payments to the company.   

The accused face up to five years in prison for conspiracy, false statements and more, and up to 30 years for “disaster fraud” and honest services wire fraud.

“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane María,” U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez said in a DOJ press release. “Instead, they decided to take advantage of the precarious conditions of our electric power grid and engaged in a bribery ... scheme in order to enrich themselves illegally.” 

A FEMA spokesperson said the agency could not comment on personnel matters but was “fully cooperating” with the federal investigation. “FEMA’s mission is to help the American people before, during, and after disasters and our mission can only be accomplished by maintaining the public trust,” FEMA said.

Electricity was out on much of the island for months after the storm hit. Nearly 3,000 people died in the storm and its aftermath. The Trump administration and FEMA were criticized for their slow response to the disaster.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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