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Ex-FEMA, energy company officials plead guilty in post-hurricane case in Puerto Rico

They admitted accepting and offering gratuities, lesser charges than conspiracy to commit bribery and fraud, which they were indicted on in 2019.
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Power lines downed by Hurricane Maria in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 3, 2017.Pedro Portal / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A former FEMA official and a former president of an Oklahoma-based energy company pleaded guilty in a fraud and bribery case stemming from the repair of Puerto Rico's decimated electrical grid after Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Ahsha Tribble, who was a FEMA deputy regional administrator, and Donald Ellison, the former president of Cobra Acquisitions, each pleaded guilty Wednesday to one charge of accepting and offering gratuities in violation of a federal law prohibiting public officials from giving or receiving certain gifts of value that inure them to personal benefits.

This is the only federal case so far related to the U.S. government’s efforts to restore Puerto Rico’s electric power grid after Hurricane Maria. The grid’s destruction caused the world’s second-longest blackout, leaving many Puerto Ricans without power for more than a year.

Exchanging gratuities can result in a maximum two-year jail sentence, according to Department of Justice archives. But Tribble and Ellison may face about six months if a judge approves their latest plea agreements.

They both recognized that Ellison gave Tribble gifts and offered gifts in an attempt to get involved in redesigning an electrical grid in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Some of those gifts included flights, hotel stays and security services from April to October 2018, according to Assistant United States Attorney Seth Erbe. In a court hearing Wednesday, Erbe said Tribble presented a proposal to redesign Vieques' energy distribution system to her superiors at FEMA without informing them the plan was prepared by Cobra Acquisitions, the Puerto Rican national newspaper El Vocero reported.

Cobra Acquisitions did not end up obtaining a contract to work on the Vieques grid. But the company, which was the main contractor for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority after the hurricane, did end up obtaining two other contracts worth over $1.8 billion combined. The work performed under both contracts was paid through the power authority with federal funds from FEMA, the Department of Justice said in 2019.

"My client has conditionally agreed to plead guilty to a single count of giving some small dollar gifts to a FEMA official as part of a relationship that was both personal and business," Bill Leone, an attorney representing Ellison, told NBC News in an email. "The statute in question makes it an offense to simply give gifts to an official if they are, even in part, motivated by gratitude for an official’s action and even if there is also a personal relationship between them."

An attorney for Tribble declined to comment.

The latest guilty pleas were part of an agreement reached allowing a change of plea by Tribble and Ellison.

In the original indictment from 2019, Tribble and Ellison were charged with conspiracy to commit bribery as well as wire and disaster fraud. Tribble had an additional charge for an unlawful travel act and Ellison for making false statements.

These charges will be dismissed if a judge approves the plea agreements presented in court Wednesday.

Last year, a third former FEMA employee involved in the case, Jovanda R. Patterson, pleaded guilty to committing acts affecting her personal financial interest. Paterson was originally accused alongside Tribble and Ellison in 2019. She was sentenced to three years of probation.

A sentencing hearing for Tribble and Ellison is expected in August.

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