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Puerto Rico Governor Says Aid From New York, Florida Will Be 'Critical' After Whitefish Deal Scuttled

Gov. Rosselló said “mutual aid agreements” with the states of New York and Florida “are going to be critical” in ongoing efforts to restore power to the island.
Image: Workers from Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings help fix the island's power grid, damaged during Hurricane Maria in September, in Manati
Workers from Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings help to fix the island's power grid in Manati, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 25.Alvin Baez / Reuters

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico is calling on some old friends in the wake of the Whitefish Energy deal debacle.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told NBC News on Monday that “mutual aid agreements” with the states of New York and Florida "are going to be critical" in ongoing efforts to restore power to the hurricane-ravaged island after the fallout from the canceling of a contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings.

“I was just on the phone with Governor Cuomo who has been very helpful in this situation, as well as Gov. Scott,” he said, referring to Andrew Cuomo of New York and Rick Scott of Florida.

Rosselló said that Cuomo told him New York has "more than 100 brigades" that can be made available as soon as the agreements can be worked out, "which we are working all day today to make sure we have them as quickly as possible."

Such interstate arrangements are common among utilities after emergencies.

Rosselló said the decision to cancel the $300 million no-bid contract with Whitefish, a small Montana company with links to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, was in the best interest of Puerto Ricans and that the mutual aid agreements with states were an alternative.

The governor said that his goal was not to set back ongoing restoration efforts as a result of the move to cancel the contract. As of Monday, Puerto Rican officials said there was only about 30 percent of power generation on the island.

“My aim is not to do that — in fact quite the opposite, actually increase the urgency to getting more brigades over here,” he said. “That is why the mutual aid assistance from the state of New York and from the state of Florida are going to be critical.”

Crews work to repair power transmission towers in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 28.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images

Rosselló also reiterated criticism of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for not meeting its power restoration goals. The agency, which was not involved in the Whitefish deal, has been tasked with helping the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) with immediate power restoration efforts.

During a news conference later Monday, Rosselló said mutual aid was not brought in earlier because the indebted power authority was given the option of going with the Army Corps with a 100 percent cost-sharing plan. He said the agency proposed to have much of the electrical grid back within 45 days.

"I have to say that there is very little action on the part of the Corps of Engineers to elevate this energy grid," he said.

"It is 30 days after signing the contract and we have seven brigades from the Corps of Engineers here in Puerto Rico right now. Compare that to 410 brigades from the power authority working with the group," he said.

The head of Puerto Rico's power authority moved on Sunday to cancel the controversial contract with Whitefish Energy just hours after the governor urged the board to scrap the deal.

Related: Puerto Rico Power Authority Moves to Cancel Whitefish Contract

Criticism had mounted over how and why the company from a landlocked state secured the major contract to restore power to the island. Company CEO Andy Techmanski is from Whitefish, Montana, the hometown of Secretary Zinke. Techmanski has denied that Zinke or anyone else in the Trump administration had anything to do with his securing the contract.

And Zinke said in a statement Friday that "I had absolutely nothing to do with Whitefish Energy receiving a contract in Puerto Rico" and any suggestions of involvement or influence "are completely baseless."

But a statement from his office acknowledged that the Zinke and the Techmanski families know each other because Whitefish is a small town and Zinke's son had even worked a summer job at one of the company's construction sites.

Related: Power Returns in Utuado, Puerto Rico

Techmanski disputed reports that Whitefish only had two full-time employees when Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, saying the company had 20 to 40 full-time employees working projects in Arizona, Montana and Washington State.

Workers from Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings help to fix the island's power grid in Manati, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 25.Alvin Baez / Reuters

Whitefish Energy said in a statement Sunday evening that it was "very disappointed" that the governor had asked PREPA to cancel the contract and that the decision "will only delay what the people of Puerto Rico want and deserve — to have the power restored quickly in the same manner their fellow citizens on the mainland experience after a natural disaster."

Officials from both parties and lawmakers on the ground in Puerto Rico had called for an investigation into the deal, which is being audited at both the local and federal level.

Whitefish spokesman Ken Luce confirmed Monday to NBC News that it had hired the lobbying firm Foley & Lardner to represent it in Washington. The main lobbyist will be Dennis Cardoza, a former Democratic congressman from California.

PREPA CEO Ricardo Ramos said Sunday afternoon that the cancellation will not stop any work the company currently has in progress, but could delay other grid-restoration efforts by 10 to 12 weeks. He also said it would cost PREPA additional money to get out of the contract.

People try to use their mobile phones in Dorado, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 29.Alvin Baez / Reuters

Puerto Rico has already paid the company more than $10 million, Ramos said.

On Sunday, Rosselló said he had initiated the process of moving forward with mutual aid programs with the states of New York and Florida.

A spokeswoman with the American Public Power Association, which helps coordinate the mutual aid network among the nation’s public power utilities, said Monday that the group had not yet received a request for mutual aid from Puerto Rico but that territories could work directly with local governments to secure that aid.

“We have definitely offered help, but we could not actually begin to activate anything until we knew the specifics, knew what they wanted, et cetera,” said Meena Dayak, vice president of integrated media and communications with the APPA.

Gabe Gutierrez reported from San Juan, and Daniella Silva from New York.