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SAN JUAN, P.R. — The CEO of Whitefish Energy, the small Montana company under intense scrutiny for an up to $300 million contract to help restore power to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, said that he first made contact with officials on the island through the social networking site LinkedIn — and not through any previous connections.
In an interview with NBC News in San Juan, CEO Andy Techmanski responded to growing calls from Capitol Hill for the contract to be terminated.
"I think that there are people out there on a witch hunt looking for something that does not exist," he said.
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Techmanski insists he first reached out to officials with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) — he did not name exactly who — through LinkedIn shortly after Hurricane Irma hit in early September. That storm knocked out power to 1 million.
Techmanski said he kept in contact with the power authority as Hurricane Maria approached. On Sept. 26, six days after Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, he said he flew down to the island to speak directly with PREPA officials.
The Whitefish contract controversy erupted in recent days largely following a report in The Washington Post detailing the mounting questions surrounding the deal. Since then, members of Congress from both parties have called for investigations. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has referred a local audit to the territory’s Office of the Comptroller and he wants the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to look into the contract.
"They can audit it," Techmanski said. "There is nothing to hide."
It was widely reported that Whitefish only had two full-time employees when Maria made landfall, a number not disputed by Whitefish’s own newly-hired media team at the time.
But Techmanski now argues that figure is incorrect, and that the company had 20-40 full-time employees working projects in Arizona, Montana and Washington State. He said Whitefish has more than 350 workers in Puerto Rico and plans to have more than 500 there soon.
"We're here doing actual work," Techmanski said. "We're under a contract and we came in good faith, and I think we're making an impact."
He strongly denies that U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — also from Whitefish, Montana — or anyone else in the Trump administration had anything to do with securing the contract. 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."
Still, in a written statement Friday, FEMA said it had “significant concerns” and had not approved the deal, despite a portion of the contract that suggested otherwise.
"That's simply not something we would do," Mike Byrne, FEMA's coordinator in Puerto Rico, told NBC News on Saturday.
According to the contract, the labor rates were $240 an hour for a general foreman and $227 for a lineman. Almost $80 a day for meals, and $332 a day for lodging were included.
"Some of the costs that they showed us, we felt we needed to have a harder look,” Byrne said. “We're going to give them a chance to make the case as to why those are higher than what we would've thought we'd see and if it's legitimate, then we'll accept it. If it's not legitimate, then we're going to end up telling them what we will be willing to pay."
In the document, there is also a portion that reads: "By executing the Contract, PREPA hereby represents and warrants that FEMA has reviewed and approved of this Contract."
Techmanski said that language wasn’t supposed to be there and has been deleted from an amended version of the contract, which he declined to provide.
"I haven't compared them side-by-side,” he said. “But certainly an oversight."
Techmanski’s signature was on the original document — along with that of Ricardo Ramos, the recently-appointed head of PREPA, the embattled utility company that is $9 billion in debt and went bankrupt in July after a long history of maintenance problems and corruption allegations.
On Saturday, officials with PREPA did not comment and said Ramos was not immediately available. But on Thursday, Ramos said at a news conference that if he had to approve the contract again, he would – and that there had not been anything illegal or out of order.
Ramos attributed the criticism of the deal to "mainly gossip from the U.S" and suggested it could be coming from other contractors who didn't get the job.
Ramos said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Friday that the language in the contract should have been removed, but "there's no other explanation for that other than an 'oops.'"
"There was a lot of pressure to sign the contract immediately, not from Whitefish but from me," Ramos told the newspaper. He told the Journal that the process met PREPA's regulations for handling emergency situations.
Techmanski said Whitefish has been paid about $8-10 million so far.
When asked whether he thought the contract had been rushed, Techmanski said: "How can you take time with a contract that has to do with millions of people being out of power? It's not something that could take days or weeks to contemplate. The priority and should still remain the priority is getting power back to the people of Puerto Rico. So do I think it was rushed? No."