FBI Arrests Former FEMA Officials for Allegedly Misusing Hurricane Maria Recovery Funds to 'Enrich Themselves'

Cobra Energy was supposed to help restore power on the island after Hurricane Maria.
Photo: Getty

The Department of Justice has arrested the person the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) put in charge of Hurricane Maria recovery in Puerto Rico along with two others on charges of committing disaster fraud. The case centers around fraud tied to more than $1.8 billion that FEMA awarded to private contractor Cobra Acquisitions Energy to help repair Puerto Rico’s electric grid after Hurricane Maria tore it apart two years ago this month.

The announcement comes after a year of investigating the Oklahoma-based company. Really, though, this all stretches back nearly two years now. Barely a month after the hurricane hit, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to investigate some of the contracts awarded to private contractors for disaster recovery. The focus then was on Whitefish Energy, a small energy firm from Montana that had close ties with then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (remember him?). But charges against Ahsha Tribble, the FEMA official that was in charge of Maria recovery, as well as former FEMA deputy chief of staff Jovanda Patterson, and former Cobra President Donald Ellison are the first to come of either investigation.

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Ellison allegedly bribed former FEMA Deputy Regional Administrator Ahsha Tribble with helicopter rides, hotels, flights, private security, and her own credit card. Now, that’s a sugar daddy. All these gifts allegedly helped Cobra secure two contracts with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority that amounted to more than $1.8 billion. Instead of going toward actually rebuilding the power grid, millions of dollars allegedly went into personal checking and savings accounts, and were used to purchase a 40-foot catamaran (a big ass boat I had to Google), a boat trailer, a tractor, and a Ford pick-up truck.

Keep in mind: These are taxpayer dollars meant to help restore power to the island after Hurricane Maria left it devastated and people in need of help.

Now, Ellison, Tribble, and Patterson face a combined 15 counts for a number of crimes that may land them behind bars for up to 35 years. That doesn’t feel like nearly enough time for individuals that might’ve helped exacerbate an already-messed up recovery effort on the part of the federal government.

“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 press release emailed to Earther. “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.”

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Some Puerto Ricans spent months without power after the hurricane. In fact, the island’s blackout was the second-longest the world has ever seen. No power is about more than living in the dark: The storm was the deadliest in modern U.S. history. That’s, in part, due to lack of refrigeration for people who need it to keep drugs like insulin chilled.

These indictments and arrests bring a bit of justice to a population that hasn’t seen nearly enough, but they still have to be tried in court. Justice will come only with a guilty verdict—and, even then, no court ruling will erase the months of darkness or return the nearly 3,000 lives lost.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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