Neighbour of Trump's interior secretary wins $300M contract to fix Puerto Rico power grid

A U.S. lawmaker is calling for an investigation after a $300-million contract to help restore Puerto Rico's battered power grid was awarded to a small company based in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's hometown.

Interior Department says Ryan Zinke, whose son had worked for the firm, wasn't involved in decision

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks during a news conference in Bunkerville, Nev., on July 30. An energy company in his small hometown has won a big contract to restore power lines in Puerto Rico. (Steve Marcus/Associated Press)

A Democratic congressman on Tuesday called for an investigation into a $300-million contract awarded to a small company based in U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's hometown of Whitefish, Mont.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) awarded the contract to Whitefish Energy Holdings to help crews restore transmission and distribution lines damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Maria.

Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, senior Democrat on the House natural resources committee, said Congress "needs to understand why the Whitefish contract was awarded and whether other, more cost-effective options were available."

The Interior Department denied that Zinke, a former Montana congressman, played any role in the contract award. Zinke's son had a summer job at a Whitefish construction site.

Small-town company

"Neither the secretary nor anyone in his office have taken any meetings or action on behalf of this company," the department said in a statement.

Zinke knows Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanskis "because they both live in a small town where everyone knows everyone," the statement said.

Ricardo Ramos, director of Puerto Rico's power authority, said the government has a $300-million contract with Whitefish and a separate $200-million contract with Oklahoma-based Cobra Acquisitions after evaluating up to six companies for the job.

Whitefish was one of two companies on the government's short list, Ramos said. The other company was requiring a $25-million down payment, given the power authority's troubled finances. PREPA filed for bankruptcy in July and has put off badly needed maintenance for years. It just finished dealing with outages from Hurricane Irma in early September.

'Doing an excellent job'

Whitefish is providing hotel rooms for its workers and brought its own materials, Ramos said.

"They're doing an excellent job," he said.

Whitefish CEO Techmanski visited Puerto Rico in late summer while on vacation and established contact with PREPA and discussed potential future work, company spokesperson Chris Chiames said. When Maria hit Sept. 20, Whitefish was one of the companies that power authority officials were able to reach by satellite phone.

Cars drive under a partially collapsed utility pole, after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria in September, in Naguabo, on Oct. 20. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)

"We got here quicker than anybody else and we built a plan that PREPA had confidence in," Chiames said in a telephone interview.

Grijalva said lawmakers also need to know why the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and public sector utilities "failed in Puerto Rico to conduct the disaster-response planning they carried out ahead of other disasters this year" in Texas, Florida and other states.