Former top FEMA officials arrested on fraud charges in Puerto Rico

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FILE – 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. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

PUERTO RICO (CBS NEWS)–Former top FEMA officials who worked in Puerto Rico during the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria were arrested on Tuesday in a federal corruption investigation. The investigation centers around alleged bribes that secured a $1.8 billion contract to repair Puerto Rico’s damaged electrical grid.

Federal authorities arrested Ahsha Tribble, FEMA’s former deputy regional administrator, who worked in Puerto Rico after the storm, and Donald Keith Ellison, former president of energy company Cobra Acquisitions. Jovanda Patterson, who worked as Tribble’s chief of staff, was also arrested.

The indictment, which was returned by a federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico on Tuesday, lists 15 counts of corruption against Tribble, Ellison and Patterson. They include charges against Tribble and Ellison of conspiracy to commit bribery, honest services wire fraud and disaster fraud. Tribble was separately charged with Travel Act violations, while Ellison was separately charged with making false statements to federal agents.

Patterson, who worked directly under Tribble and was later hired by Cobra Acquisitions, was charged with committing acts affecting personal financial conflicts of interest and wire fraud.

Cobra Acquisitions was the main contractor for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and executed two contracts with the agency for a total value of $1.8 billion, according to the Justice Department. Work completed by Cobra for the island’s damaged electrical infrastructure was paid through the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority by federal funds from FEMA. 

From October 2017 to April 2019, Ellison provided “things of value” to Tribble to influence his decisions to award Cobra with restoration work, according to the Justice Department. Prosecutors claimed that Ellison provided Tribble with personal helicopter use and use of a credit card and that he secured employment within Cobra for Patterson. 

“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane María. 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,” U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez said in a statement. 

“All government officials are entrusted with performing their duties honestly and ethically. The charged offenses are reprehensible, more so in light of PREPA’s and Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis,” Rodríguez-Vélez added. 

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