Montana company restoring power in Puerto Rico responds testily to San Juan mayor's criticism

A small Montana company responded testily to mounting criticism Wednesday over why it received a lucrative contract to restore power in Puerto Rico, at one point appearing to threaten to pull out its workers.

Whitefish Energy Holdings LLC reportedly had just two full-time employees before Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September, after which the company signed a $300-million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to help restore the island’s devastated power grid. The company says it has since hired hundreds of contractors and subcontractors to work on the island.

That has led some elected officials in the U.S. mainland and in Puerto Rico to ask for investigations into how the contract was awarded. In a speech on the House floor Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, said the deal was “fishy” and “looked corrupt.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, while calling Whitefish's work on the island "important," on Wednesday asked the Inspector General of the U.S. Homeland Security Department to review the contract. He said officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency told him the contract complied with agency regulations.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a critic of the Trump administration’s response to the disaster, was less diplomatic.

She called for the “alarming” contract to be “voided right away, and a proper process which is clear, transparent, legal, moral and ethical should take place,” sparking a Twitter war with the Whitefish, Mont.-based company.

"We share the mayor's frustration with the situation on Puerto Rico, but her comments are misplaced," the company said. "Whitefish has more than 300 workers on the island and that number is growing daily.” The company said the mayor’s criticism was “demoralizing” to the workers.

Cruz shot back: “You would think I am the only one in the world that has commented on this. What is it about women having an opinion that irritates some? … If @WhitefishEnergy feels that asking for transparency is ‘misplaced’, what are they afraid we will find.”

“We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived,” the company tweeted in response. “Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”

@WhitefishEnergy implies that you will not treat the City of San Juan with the diligence it deserves,” Cruz responded. “Thus admitting political motivations.”

“Mayor, you called for our work to end,” the company wrote. “We do not want to leave the island without help. We’re committed to restoring power to Puerto Rico.”

“Why do you only have 44 linemen in San Juan is beyond me?” Cruz replied. “Why are neighboring towns energized while SJ is kept in the dark becomes evident.”

The exchange drew extensive attention on Twitter, with many observers reading the company’s tweets as a threat to abandon the island. The company denied that interpretation.

“That’s not what the tweet said,” Ken Luce, a spokesman for Whitefish, said in a phone interview. The company was just describing what would happen if the company’s contract was voided, as Cruz had requested, he said. “If we were to leave, the number of people in that tweet would not be working. That’s a simple fact.”

Luce accused the mayor of “playing politics” but at the same time said, “I respect the mayor, and I respect what she says.”

“Puerto Rico will become a Katrina or worse based on nothing happening,” Luce said, referring to the hurricane that devastated Louisiana in 2005. “We’re there getting stuff done. People can question the contract, but they can’t question that we’re getting stuff done.”

About three-quarters of the island still does not have power, and the disaster response is expected to take months to return the island to some semblance of normalcy.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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