The contractor hails from Whitefish, Montana; a small town with a company that landed a major contract in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Whitefish Emergency Holdings, LLC contracted with Puerto Rico's public power company for $300 million to get help to the island desperate to get its utilities back on-line.
After subcontracting with other U.S. utility companies and mobilizing hundreds of workers to the region, Whitefish came under scrutiny for allegations of overbilling and questionable practices in obtaining the contract.
USA TODAY reported the Montana-based company had been registered for two years and had only two employees when Hurricane Maria hit the island Sept. 20. Now the company has 300 employees and employs mostly subcontractors like JEA. Puerto Rico's governor called for the inspector general to audit the contract and company to determine if Puerto Rican and federal law was followed properly.
According to the Oct. 1 agreement with JEA, the local utility provided resources, personnel and equipment to assist Whitefish is emergency restoration work to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) power grid.
The master contract between Whitefish and PREPA differed from typical disaster relief contracts or mutual aid agreements that are often reviewed by FEMA before being executed.
Whitefish's master contract bills PREPA $319 for each hour of work by journey linemen. According to JEA, Whitefish then paid $170 per hour for JEA linemen work. The New York Times reported linemen being paid as little as $63 per hour, but Whitefish still billed Puerto Rico the $319 rate.
Union business manager Valerie Gutierrez for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers #2358 said any markups do not impact the linemen pay because the set rate was contracted before workers were deployed to Puerto Rico.
On Oct. 29, PREPA said it would be cancelling Whitefish's multi-million dollar contract. Guitierrez said the change creates some uncertainty for workers who are in Puerto Rico or were planning to go.
Gerri Boyce, media representative with JEA said in a statement:
Since JEA is a subcontractor to Whitefish, the termination of the Whitefish contract resulted in a termination of JEA’s subcontract on November 30. JEA had begun efforts to directly contract with PREPA to provide mutual aid assistance. However, other contractors have recently begun arriving in Puerto Rico and there are now more than 3000 utility workers on the island (including PREPA’s workers), so at this time JEA is planning to return home before the end of November. The work we have done over the past 40 days has made an impact and we are glad we were able to provide assistance until a larger workforce was able to mobilize.
Forty JEA linemen recently returned to Jacksonville after a 30-day assignment and 45 remain until the end of the month.