In this May 2018 photo, deteriorated U.S. and Puerto Rico flags fly in an area that remained without power eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

In this May 2018 photo, deteriorated U.S. and Puerto Rico flags fly in an area that remained without power eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Carlos Giusti/AP

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FEMA Officials Charged With Bribery Over Puerto Rico Power Contracts

A 15-count federal indictment accuses two former FEMA officials and a contractor with bribery, fraud and other offenses related to disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

A former top Federal Emergency Management Agency official, her aide, and the former president of an energy company were indicted and arrested in connection with an alleged scheme to direct billions of dollars in disaster aid to the company for electricity restoration in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Ahsha Tribble, who until recently was FEMA’s Region II deputy regional administrator and led the agency's efforts to restore power to the devastated island, is accused of accepting a variety of bribes from Donald Ellison, former president of Cobra Acquisitions, LLC, a subsidiary of Mammoth Energy Services, in exchange for pressuring officials at FEMA and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to improperly assign projects to Cobra.

According to the 15-count indictment, Ellison gave Tribble a variety of gifts, including a helicopter tour of Puerto Rico, assistance finding housing in New York, and paid for various hotel stays and airfare. He also agreed to hire her deputy, Jovanda Patterson, to a post at Mammoth Energy Services after she left the agency. Following Hurricane Maria, Cobra received $1.8 billion in contracts to help rebuild the territory’s electrical grid.

“From October 2017 to April 2019, Tribble and Ellison developed a personal relationship wherein Ellison provided Tribble with things of value with the intent to influence Tribble’s performance of official acts,” said federal prosecutors in Puerto Rico in a statement announcing the indictment. “[As] part of Ellison’s pattern of providing things of value to Tribble, he also secured employment within Cobra’s affiliated companies for her friend, defendant Patterson.”

In exchange for the slew of gifts and services from Ellison, Tribble allegedly leaned on officials at FEMA and at PREPA to ensure that Cobra received projects as part of the recovery effort, and to ensure Cobra was paid quickly.

“Tribble . . . performed official acts . . . including but not limited to, influencing, providing advice to, and exerting pressure on PREPA executives . . . so that PREPA would accelerate payments to Cobra, assign tasks to Cobra instead of using PREPA employees, and use Cobra in restoration tasks to the exclusion of other contractors,” the indictment stated. “[It] was further part of the conspiracy that . . . Tribble regularly provided [Ellison] with information she obtained through her position as FEMA deputy regional administrator, sector lead, and recovery manager, providing Cobra with information not readily accessible to it through other needs.”

President Trump has routinely claimed that Puerto Rican officials were corrupt and that disaster money “went missing.” Both governmental defendants in this case were federal officials, while Cobra is headquartered in Oklahoma.

Tribble and Ellison are both charged with conspiracy to commit bribery, four counts of wire fraud and one count of disaster fraud. Tribble also is accused of four counts of violations of the Travel Act, while Ellison faces two counts of making false statements to investigators. Patterson faces two charges of wire fraud, and one violation of “acts affecting personal financial conflicts of interest.”