Former top FEMA official busted for taking bribes after Hurricane Maria
A former top official in the Federal Emergency Management Agency was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly taking bribes from the head of a company who received $1.8 billion in federal contracts to repair Puerto Rico’s power grid after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.
Ahsha Tribble, a deputy regional administrator, another former FEMA official, Jovanda Patterson, and Donald Keith Ellison, the former president of COBRA Acquisitions, were charged in a 15-count indictment.
Patterson, Tribble’s deputy chief of staff, steered contracts to COBRA and left FEMA in July 2018 for a job at the energy company, the court documents say.
“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane Maria. 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,” Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, the US attorney in Puerto Rico, said in a statement.
The charges implied that Tribble, who oversaw the restoration of the island’s electrical system for FEMA, and Ellison were romantically involved and documented how they traveled together and often stayed in the same room between October 2017 and April 2019.
Ellison, who had a two contracts for recovery work from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, enticed Tribble with gifts, including a helicopter tour of the Caribbean island, helping her get an apartment in New York, hotel rooms in Fort Lauderdale and Charlotte, N.C., first-class air tickets from San Juan to New York, and use of his credit card, the indictment released Sept. 3 says.
In return, she used her influence to “secure favorable treatment” of COBRA by pressuring PREPA executives to speed-up payments to the company and assign work to Oklahoma-based COBRA that could have been done by PREPA workers.
In February 2018, after an explosion at a transmission center that knocked out power for several towns, Tribble pushed PREPA to hire COBRA to make the repairs even though the costs would be much higher than if the agency used its own employees.
PREPA eventually paid COBRA more than $600,000 for the work.
Tribble sent Ellison a chain of emails between her and a PREPA consultant about payments PREPA owed COBRA with “$200M behind in payment to Cobra – stop work looming again” in the subject line.
Tribble also relayed sensitive information she received as part of her FEMA position to Ellison that he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to get.
For example, she forwarded an email to Ellison she received back from “Individual C.”
Tribble in the original email to the person wrote “this is a draft but you can see where we are going” and included a Microsoft Word document titled “PR Electrical Grid – Standardization Modernization and Hardening of Infr…”
She communicated with Ellison using her private email account, her own cellphone, a disposable cellphone, sending messages through SMS texts, photographs and Applei Messages instead of through her FEMA accounts.
In another email sent in February 2018, Tribble asked Ellison about her request for him to find her a place to live in New York.
“Yes, ma’am, I got it and have somebody on it already,” he wrote back, according to the documents.
FEMA said in a statement that it is “fully cooperating with federal investigators” and take allegations of employee misconduct “extremely seriously.”