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.)  

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.” 

Power poles downed by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 7, 2017.
Power poles downed by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 7, 2017.

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.

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