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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — There is turmoil anew at the indebted and hobbled Puerto Rico public power company after the company's CEO resigned and then his appointed replacement resigned along with several board members as a controversy over executive salaries erupted.
The resignations come as Puerto Rico is trying to privatize the power company, known as PREPA, that is $9 billion in debt and has seen a turnover of leaders since Category 4 Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory last September. The U.S. territory has yet to complete work to create a stable energy grid, and some residents have been without power since the vicious storm.
Walter Higgins, who was named CEO in late March, resigned late Wednesday, just months after he was chosen to oversee the bankrupt power company's privatization.
On Thursday, Higgins' appointed replacement, Rafael Díaz Granados, a member of the power company's board who was to take over Higgins' duties July 15, also resigned along with fellow independent members of PREPA's governing board.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló appointed two new board members shortly after the resignations took place. He named Elí Díaz, the president of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, and electrical engineer Ralph Kreil to PREPA's board of governors.
Without the new appointees, PREPA would have had no governing board in place as of this Sunday, what would have been Díaz Granados’ first day as CEO, officials said.
Díaz Grandados was due to be paid a $750,000 a year, far more than the $450,000 Higgins earned, an amount that had already caused grumbling on the island. Díaz Granados' salary prompted a greater outcry, and Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz called for the firings of board members who supported it.
“That kind of insult to Puerto Ricans is unacceptable,” Rivera Schatz said.
According to El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s national newspaper, Díaz Granados is not willing to accept a lower salary. He previously served in positions at General Electric in Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula, was executive director for GE in Mexico and an attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Gov. Rosselló said that the salary for Díaz Granado, determined by PREPA's governing board, is not proportional to the financial condition of the power company, the government's fiscal situation "or to the feeling of the people who are making sacrifices to raise Puerto Rico."
"The governing board of PREPA must temper the salary to what I am proposing or, alternatively, the members that are not willing to do so must resign their positions, so that these are assumed by people who work hard in the search of a good executive director willing to work for a salary that fits the reality of PREPA,” Rosselló said in a statement.
However, PREPA's governing board said in a press release on Wednesday that the $750,000 salary is "consistent with compensation in the electric industry for companies of the size, complexity and scope of the public corporation."
The island has been dealing with an economic crisis and implemented austerity measures and budget cuts while it tries to restructure a portion of its $70 billion public debt. The hurricane worsened its economic problems as families fled the island and businesses remained closed in the months following the storm.
The resignations throw the power company back into a turmoil that Puerto Rico officials have been trying to put behind them.
Higgins had replaced an interim director who was appointed after CEO Ricardo Ramos stepped down last November following a scandal over a $300 million contract that Ramos awarded to Whitefish, a tiny company in Montana, after Maria.
In his resignation letter, Higgins said that the compensation details outlined in his contract could not be fulfilled. Last month, Puerto Rico’s justice secretary said it would be illegal for him to receive bonuses.
Higgins also released a brief statement saying his wife’s family is facing a serious health issue and that was an important factor in his decision to resign.
Juan Rosario, the former consumer representative on the power company’s board, told The Associated Press that he was not surprised about Higgins’ resignation.
“The power company changes its director like people change their underwear,” he said. “That contributes to this image of instability.”
A power company spokesman said that Higgins will remain as a member of the power company’s board and that he resigned following a mutual agreement with the board that offers no financial compensation.
“Under his direction, we were able to re-establish service to thousands of Puerto Ricans, for which we are very grateful,” board president Ernest Sgroi said.
Higgins previously served as president and CEO of a company whose subsidiary provided power to Bermuda.
Last month, government officials questioned why Higgins awarded a $315,000 contract to a consultant without authorization from certain government agencies.
They demanded an explanation and later said they were satisfied with the response from the power company’s board of directors, which noted it had hired the consultant instead of filling the position for an executive sub-director of administration and finance.
Crews continue working to restore power to the last 1,000 or so customers who have been without power since Maria hit on Sept. 20 and destroyed up to 75 percent of transmission lines across the island. The U.S. government still is operating 175 generators across Puerto Rico.