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FEMA officials, contractor accused of hurricane relief fraud

Overflow from the damaged Guajataka River Dam is seen in San Sebastian, in the west of Puerto Rico, on September 23, 2017 following passage of Hurricane Maria, prompting the government to issue an order for 70,000 people in downstream towns to evacuate. Authorities in Puerto Rico rushed to evacuate tens of thousands of people living downriver from a dam said to be in danger of collapsing because of flooding from Hurricane Maria. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico  — Federal authorities said Tuesday 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.

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, 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.

“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.

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