Advertisement
  1. Florida Politics
  2. /
  3. The Buzz

FEMA officials, contractor accused of hurricane relief fraud

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico said that the then-president of Cobra Acquisitions LLC, Donald Keith Ellison, gave FEMA’s deputy regional director freebies in exchange for payments and contracts.
In this Oct. 5, 2017 file photo, Department of Homeland Security personnel deliver supplies to Santa Ana community residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Federal authorities said Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, that they have arrested two former officials of the Federal Emergency Management Authority and the former president of a major disaster relief contractor, accusing them of bribery and fraud in the efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. [CARLOS GIUSTI | AP] [AP]
In this Oct. 5, 2017 file photo, Department of Homeland Security personnel deliver supplies to Santa Ana community residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Federal authorities said Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, that they have arrested two former officials of the Federal Emergency Management Authority and the former president of a major disaster relief contractor, accusing them of bribery and fraud in the efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. [CARLOS GIUSTI | AP] [AP]
Published Sep. 10

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Federal authorities said Tuesday they have arrested two former officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the former president of a major disaster relief contractor, accusing them of bribery and fraud in the efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Puerto Rico said that the then-president of Cobra Acquisitions LLC, Donald Keith Ellison, gave FEMA's deputy regional director airline flights, hotel accommodations, personal security services and the use of a credit card.

In return, Ahsha Nateef Tribble “used any opportunity she had to benefit Cobra,” said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, including accelerating payments to the company and pressuring local power authority officials to award it contracts.

Ellison also gave a job to a friend of Tribble, Jovanda R. Patterson, who had been FEMA deputy chief of staff in Puerto Rico before resigning in July 2018 to work for Cobra Energy LLC, according to the indictment. Cobra Acquisitions and Cobra Energy are subsidiaries of Oklahoma City-based Mammoth Energy Services Inc.

Tribble was FEMA's primary leader in trying to restore electric power after Hurricane Maria destroyed the power grid in 2017. Cobra was given contracts worth about $1.8 billion.

Authorities said Tribble was arrested Monday in Florida while Ellison was detained in Oklahoma.

Ellison's attorney, Bill Leone, said the government is trying to criminalize a friendship between Ellison and Tribble when there was nothing wrong with their relationship.

"He has done nothing wrong," Leone said of Ellison. "There's just absolutely nothing to prohibit that."

Leone said the work performed by Cobra was scrutinized and monitored by officials from many federal and state agencies. "We are delighted that we are about to have our day in court," he said.

Mammoth Energy Services did not immediately reply to an email request for comment.

"These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane Maria," Rodríguez said. "Instead, they decided to take advantage of the precarious conditions of our electric power grid and engaged in a bribery and honest services wire fraud scheme in order to enrich themselves illegally."

Rodríguez said that after an explosion at a power plant knocked out power to several towns in February 2018, Tribble pressured power authority officials to use Cobra rather than their own workforce. "She even told them that if they did not use Cobra, FEMA would not reimburse them," the prosecutor added.

Patterson, meanwhile, was accused of defrauding Cobra by telling the company her salary with FEMA was far larger than it was, and she was offered $160,000 a year to work for Cobra, Rodríguez said.

She allegedly was in the midst of negotiating the job with Cobra when she also participated for FEMA in part of Cobra's vendor bid process for work in Puerto Rico.

According to prosecutors, Tribble avoided using her FEMA email and cell phone, instead opting for private accounts and even a disposable prepaid cell number.

When investigators approached Ellison he denied anything but a business relationship. They knew he had taken a helicopter ride with Tribble, but he denied that too, prosecutors said.

The government is seeking the forfeiture from Ellison of accounts holding more than $4 million, as well as a 40-foot catamaran.

If convicted of the charges of honest services wire fraud and disaster fraud, they could face up to 30 years in prison.

U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez of New York said in a statement that the charges suggest corruption was another factor in the flawed response to the hurricane damage.

"These charges, related to the Island's beleaguered energy grid, are an appalling insult to the people of Puerto Rico who already endured the longest blackout in American history," she said. "If proven, this misuse of funds suggests that, while our fellow citizens on the Island were dying from a lack of electricity, private companies stateside were plotting how to illicitly profit at taxpayers' expense."

Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, as a Category 4 storm. It destroyed the island’s power grid and caused damage estimated at more than $100 billion.



ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Kerry Kriseman, right, beside husband Mayor Rick Kriseman. Kerry Kriseman announced Friday she has cancer. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Times]
    Kerry Kriseman announced the news Friday on Facebook. She said the prognosis is good.
  2. The walkable waterfront hamlet of Apalachicola, founded in 1831 on Apalachicola Bay, is shrouded in overcast on Tuesday. The town is home to oyster boats and shrimp boats which make their daily pilgrimages into the seafood-rich bay. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
    Florida filed the lawsuit against Georgia in 2013, though battles about water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system date to the 1990s.
  3. At the request of a state lawmaker, Citizens Property Insurance Co.’s board is again bringing in an outside evaluator to help the insurer decide if and how to cull its policyholder base. Pictured is  Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) (left) and Barry Gilway, CEO of Citizens. [Courtesy of Sen. Jeff Brandes and Citizens Property Insurance Co.]
    At the request of St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes, the insurer will look for ways to shrink.
  4. Blackwater River Correctional Facility. [Florida Department of Corrections]
    An audit spells out how short-term savings, realized between 2011 and 2014, are now costing taxpayers millions and leading to settlements from successful class-action lawsuits on behalf of inmates.
  5. Yuma, the Florida panther cub, explores his new enclosure at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in 2014. The young panther will live out his days at the park after being rescued in January 2014 from the wild near Naples at about one-week of age. He had been abandoned. Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park had a ceremony Thursday morning with a couple speeches explaining Yuma's circumstances which were followed by a brief countdown for the opening of a gate allowing Yuma to enter his new enclosure. [DAMASKE, JIM   |  Tampa Bay Times]
    It would “basically be a disaster for the panther,” a federal biologist wrote in assessment.
  6. A trial court ruling barring two women from entering an Orlando strip club without a man has caused a constitutional chain reaction. Miami Beach argues that local human rights ordinances are under attack, and the city is leading an effort to overturn the ruling. [STEVEN JOHNSON | Miami Herald]
    On Thursday, Miami Beach led a coalition of 21 municipalities, including Tampa, Pinellas County and Dunedin, in filing a brief urging the overturn of a May decision voiding local protections of civil...
  7. This Feb. 19 photo shows a makeshift memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting in Parkland. [AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File]
    The grand jury said districts are creating “unnecessary chaos” and have become “experts at data manipulation.”
  8. Council member Ed Montanari, left, was elected St. Petersburg City Council chair for 2020. Council member Gina Driscoll was voted vice-chair. [Times (2019)]
    The chairman guides the council through meetings and generally speak last on issues.
  9. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) [ALEX BRANDON  |  AP]
    Gaetz declined a breathalyzer test, but the charges were dropped anyway.
  10. Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, presents his bill on civics education to the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on Dec. 11, 2019. The legislation received unanimous bipartisan support. [The Florida Channel]
    ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport,’ sponsor Rep. Ben Diamond reminds colleagues.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement