Sunday news shows completely ignore growing Whitefish scandal in Puerto Rico
Whitefish, the inexperienced, Montana-based firm that was contracted without a competitive bidding process to restore power in Puerto Rico, was charging “eye-popping” rates. Meanwhile, a month after Maria, 70 percent of Puerto Rico remains without power.
Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT
The Sunday news shows on broadcast networks and CNN all completely ignored the growing scandal over the small Montana-based firm Whitefish Energy Holdings that had recieved a $300 million contract from Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to restore power to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The contract, which was facing increasing scrutiny, was canceled late Sunday afternoon.
E&E News first reported on Whitefish’s contract with PREPA in stories on October 6 and October 9, revealing that PREPA decided not to take advantage of a mutual aid program among 1,100 electric companies that could have helped to quickly restore power on the island, where about 70 percent of residents still have no electricity. Instead, PREPA awarded a contract to the Montana-based firm, which at the time had only two full-time staffers.
On October 23, The Washington Post reported that Whitefish is based in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, that Zinke and Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski know one another, and that Zinke’s son worked for the company during one summer. Zinke’s office said he had no role in Whitefish securing the contract. BuzzFeed further reported on October 24 that a major donor to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Republican National Committee, Joe Colonnetta, is the head of one of Whitefish’s major funding sources, private equity firm HBC Investments. However, the report noted, “It’s unclear whether Colonnetta, who did not respond to a request for comment, has specific connections to Whitefish, or whether his stake in Whitefish Energy is simply a business investment.”
The most recent version of the leaked contract stated that “FEMA had ‘reviewed and approved it for compliance with its disaster recovery regulations.” But, according to The Washington Post, FEMA denied that it gave “any preliminary approval for the deal, which was reached without competitive bidding. The contract prevented PREPA from making “any claim against Contractor related to delayed completion of work” and barred government agencies from auditing or reviewing “cost and profit elements” of the deal. But the deal came under fire for the “eye-popping” hourly rates Whitefish was charging:
Much of the controversy that has surrounded the contract has focused on the high rates Whitefish is charging for labor. The contract shows those labor rates are pricey indeed: $240 an hour for a general foreman and $227 for a lineman. The per diems are also expensive: almost $80 a day for meals, and $332 a day for lodging. Employee flights are billed at $1,000 each way.
For subcontractors, the bulk of Whitefish's workforce, the prices go even higher. A general foreman costs $336 an hour and a lineman, $319.
FEMA now says it has “significant concerns” with the deal, which was canceled this afternoon hours after Puerto Rico’s governor urged the utility to cancel the contract. CNN and MSNBC gave the Whitefish story significant attention this week amid the rise of serious questions and discrepancies that have been flagged. But the Sunday political shows, which are influential in Washington and which can help hold government agencies and lawmakers to account, barely discussed Puerto Rico at all, and they ignored the deal completely.
Methodology: Media Matters searched TVEyes for mentions of “whitefish,” “white fish,” “San Juan,” and “Puerto Rico” on CNN and the Washington, D.C. affiliate stations of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co. during their scheduled air times, and found zero relevant results.