SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A former military officer was appointed Wednesday to oversee reconstruction of Puerto Rico's flattened electrical grid and operations of the island's troubled power company amid growing concerns over a $300 million contract awarded to a small Montana company to help repair the damage from Hurricane Maria.
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. The announcement comes as 75 percent of the U.S. territory remains without power more than a month after it was hit by the Category 4 storm.
"I am fully committed to bringing the resources necessary to restore electricity to the people of Puerto Rico as quickly as possible, and to re-activate the economy and bring normalcy to the island," Zamot said in a statement.
It is unclear how much Zamot will be paid and who will pay his salary as Puerto Rico enters its 11th year of recession and struggles to restructure a portion of its $73 billion public debt load. A spokesman for the federal control board did not return a message for comment.
Zamot spent 25 years with the Air Force and helped manage energy and infrastructure projects, according to the board. His appointment comes as members of Congress from both parties demand an investigation into the contract awarded to Whitefish Energy Holdings, a small company located in Whitefish, Montana, the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
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.
A Whitefish spokesman has said the company arrived in Puerto Rico ahead of everyone, and the director of Puerto Rico's power company, Ricardo Ramos, has praised their work and said the company was the only one that did not require a down payment. The power company is $9 billion in debt and was already struggling to provide service amid ongoing power outages before hurricane Irma and Maria hit last month.
Whitefish had only two-full time employees when Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 but since then has contracted more than 300 workers. It was hired before the hurricane hit to help repair the damage the storm was going to leave behind.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has said his administration soon will audit the contract awarded to Whitefish, but he rejected Zamot's appointment, saying that locally elected officials are still responsible for overseeing government agencies and administration of their funds.
Scrutiny over the Whitefish contract also led to a Twitter spat Wednesday between the company and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who said the contract should be voided.
"We've got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?" Whitefish responded.