A Whitefish company that landed a lucrative contract to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s hurricane-damaged electric transmission system took to Twitter Wednesday to respond to criticisms of the hiring process by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz.
“We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city and 40 more men just arrived,” Whitefish Energy Holdings tweeted Wednesday. “Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”
The tweet resulted in a stream of angry responses. "If @WhitefishEnergy feels that asking for transparency is 'misplaced', what are they afraid we will find," Cruz tweeted at one point.
The back-and-forth was one of several developments Wednesday concerning the two-person company in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's hometown that landed a $300 million contract for the work in Puerto Rico. Whitefish Energy's largest federal contract to date had been $1.3 million for transmission line work in Arizona.
Wednesday evening, the governor of Puerto Rico tweeted that he'd asked the Office of Inspector General to review the contracting process that awarded the work to Whitefish Energy. In a letter attached to the tweet, Ricardo Rossello asked that a final determination be made by Monday, Oct. 30.
And, a former military officer was appointed Wednesday to oversee reconstruction of the island's flattened electrical grid and operations of its troubled power company amid growing concerns over the $300 million contract.
A federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico's finances said retired Air Force Col. Noel Zamot will be responsible for speeding up reconstruction efforts and overseeing coordination with the board, Puerto Rico's government and the federal government.
Cruz criticized the process of awarding the no-bid contract as “alarming,” saying it raised ethical and legal questions. A persistent critic of President Donald Trump’s handling of damage following the hurricane, Cruz called for the contract to be voided.
Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority officials have said Whitefish Energy was the only company willing to start work without a retainer worth millions of dollars.
In a subsequent tweet Wednesday, Whitefish Energy said “We share frustration with Mayor Cruz on the situation in Puerto Rico, but her comments are misplaced.”
The company said it had 300 workers currently on the island and the numbers are growing daily. A spokesman said earlier the company would eventually like to employ up to 1,000.
“We are making progress and doing work when others are not even here,” the company said in a letter posted on Twitter. “We find her comments to be very disappointing and demoralizing to the hundreds of people on our team that have left their homes and families and have come here to help the people of Puerto Rico.”
Meanwhile, the appointment of Zamot — who spent 25 years with the Air Force and helped manage energy and infrastructure projects — comes as members of Congress from both parties demand an investigation into the contract awarded to Whitefish Energy.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday praised the federal control board for appointing Zamot, saying additional scrutiny is necessary.
"We are deeply concerned both about why and how a small, inexperienced firm was tasked with the massive job of rebuilding Puerto Rico's devastated electrical grid, and why (Puerto Rico's power company) failed to activate the mutual aid network, which effectively came to the aid of Texas and Florida after the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma," Pelosi said in a statement.
Maria hit the island on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm, killing more than 50 people and knocking out electricity to the whole island. More than a month later, only 30 percent of customers have power.
Senate Energy Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters Wednesday that she wasn’t sure if her committee would take on the issue of the Whitefish Energy contract directly, but “I obviously want to find out more about it because this is quite a substantial contract and one that is really important to the people of Puerto Rico right now.”
A spokesman for Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, agreed that congressional review was needed. The resources panel oversees Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.
"The size and unknown details of this contract raise numerous questions. This is one of many things the committee is taking a close look at as it continues to work with the resident commissioner, governor's office and oversight board to ensure Puerto Rico's recovery is robust, effective and sustained," said Parish Braden, a spokesman for Bishop.
The Interior Department denied that Zinke, a former Montana congressman, played any role in the contract award. Zinke's son had a summer job at a Whitefish construction site.
"Neither the secretary nor anyone in his office have taken any meetings or action on behalf of this company," the department has said, noting that Zinke knows Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski "because they both live in a small town where everyone knows everyone.''
The Hungry Horse news reported in December that Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia said then-U.S. Rep. Zinke’s office reached out to the city after Techmanski and others expressed interest in purchasing a portion of the former Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. property to build a transformer factory in December.
Nicosia did not return a phone call Wednesday. The proposal to build the transformer factory hasn’t moved forward.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the contract award to Whitefish Energy, which she called a "brand-new company with two employees."
Ricardo Ramos, director of Puerto Rico's power authority, said the government has a $300 million contract with Whitefish and a separate $200 million contract with Oklahoma-based Cobra Acquisitions after evaluating up to six companies for the job.
Whitefish was one of two companies on the government's shortlist, Ramos said. The other company was requiring a $25 million down payment, and given the power authority's troubled finances, the company decided to move forward with Whitefish because it didn’t require the down payment.
PREPA filed for bankruptcy in July and has put off badly needed maintenance for years. It just finished dealing with outages from Hurricane Irma in early September.
Whitefish said it is sending hundreds of workers, mostly subcontractors, to Puerto Rico and is providing hotel rooms and its own materials.
Rossello, the governor, said power contracts awarded by PREPA will be audited.
In an interview with Caribbean Business published Monday, Techmanski said he started out 20 years ago as a lineman affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Since then, he has worked in various parts of the world doing training, consulting for utility companies and working on transmission and distribution line projects.
Techmanski established Whitefish Energy in 2015. The company’s website said its extensive contractor relationships enable it to address projects of any scale.
Whitefish Energy is backed by HBC Investments and Flat Creek Capital, both based in Dallas, Texas, and Comtrafo Transformers located in Brazil.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Techmanski has held executive positions at Arctic Arrow Powerline Group, Quanta Field Services and American Site Builders, and management positions before then. He studied business management at Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon.
A public records search Wednesday showed that Techmanski was listed as a debtor on four tax liens in California — one from the state of California, filed January 31, 2012 for $4,237; and three for much smaller amounts dating back to 2007, 2008 and 2009 filed by the County of San Diego. It was not possible to ascertain Wednesday whether the liens had been paid.
Also listed are papers indicating that Techmanski was evicted from a home at the behest of a creditor in November 2009.
Techmanski told Caribbean Business that his family has been considering moving to Puerto Rico for more than a year and had a trip lined up this winter to look for a house.
“So, I already had long-term plans to at least spend part of the year in Puerto Rico,” Techmanski told the publication. “Maybe that has mitigated some of the risk of coming, financially and logistically, because we want to see this island get back on its feet as fast as possible.”
Techmanski’s home in Whitefish is listed for sale for $1,595,000.
A request for an interview Wednesday with Techmanski was declined by Whitefish Energy’s spokesman.