Two Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employees have been charged with fraud and bribery over their handling of hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.
Ahsha Nateef Tribble, the official that the Justice Department identified as the “primary leader” for restoring power on the island after Hurricane Maria, pressured other FEMA employees and Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to use a company called Cobra Acquisitions, LLC to do work relating to power restoration, according to a statement from the Justice Department. Tribble, the indictment alleges, “developed a personal relationship” with then-President of Cobra Acquisitions Donald Keith Ellison.
Tribble is said to have received perks like hotel accommodation, first-class airfare, the use of a credit card and personal helicopter flights from Cobra Acquisitions. Authorities said Ellison also provided a job at the company for Tribble’s friend Jovanda R. Patterson, when she left FEMA in July 2018.
Tribble, Patterson and Ellison are all facing charges.
“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 statement.
“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.”
Cobra Acquisitions received contracts worth $1.8 billion, that were paid for with FEMA funding, according to the Justice Department.
Bill Leone, a lawyer for Ellison, said that the indictment “criminalizes normal business and personal relationships that are not criminal under the law, no matter how far you stretch it,” according to the Washington Post.
Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in September 2017 as a Category 4 hurricane, caused severe devastation to the island. A study by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University found that almost 3,000 people died in the six months following the storm as a result of problems caused by the disaster. It look 11 months to restore power to residents, according to the New York Times.