Monday, October 30, 2017

The Whitefish Energy Saga: Corruption While People Suffer

Trump emphasized that the White House saw the hurricane aftermath in Puerto Rico as a profit opportunity first, and the Whitefish Energy contract puts those comments in a new light. A virtually nonexistent electrical contractor is being paid 7 times the market rate for electrical technicians to repair broken electric lines in Puerto Rico. Had the contract run its course, the owners would have pocketed around a quarter of a billion dollars without doing any work themselves. Whitefish Energy does not have any employees — journalists have been able to identify only two people who work for the company — so it must simply have hired other companies who do employ electric workers to do the actual work. I assume the dozens of workers who ultimately arrived in San Juan did real work, though I must add that so far there is no concrete evidence of this — no photographs of workers working, no building with its electric supply restored. At the same time, there is little room to imagine that the technicians Whitefish Energy hastily rounded up on the job boards could have been as skilled and qualified as ones who had been through a regular hiring process. Essentially, the Whitefish Energy contract was little more than a vehicle to funnel unearned money to this mysterious shell of a company.

The contract did not last long after journalists found out about the terms. The largest daily paper in San Juan, though it didn’t break the story, ran an infographic showing how disproportionate the pay arrangements were. That image was seen everywhere last week, it seemed. The mayor of San Juan asked for the contract to be voided, which resulted in Whitefish Energy threatening the mayor on Twitter. The company apologized quickly, but it was too late. The Inspector General’s office looked at the case for a day and decided it wouldn’t have anything to do with it. After two more hops, the governor recommended canceling the contract. By that point, no one would admit to having anything to do with approving the contract in the first place, and it was canceled the next day. That happened over the weekend.

Except — work already underway is being allowed to continue. This makes a kind of sense, but it also means that the work will run long enough that Whitefish Energy, whoever they really are, will get to keep a lot of money, surely in the neighborhood of $10 million. That is still a huge government payout in what looks like a case of government corruption from beginning to end. It is more than enough money to allow a small group of people to retire to a tropical island, as we have seen in the final scene in more than one or two Hollywood heist flicks. This is a money bag on a similar scale to what we see in the movies. And we don’t even know at this point who Whitefish Energy really is.

FEMA seemed to own the contract originally, but disowned it after the terms became public. Over the weekend they were complaining that other parties hadn’t properly vetted the contract, though it is far from clear that the electric company owned by the bankrupt territory had the authority to question a financial arrangement set up by its federal overseers. The indirectness of rule by an oversight committee did not just mean it took five days to cancel the contract. This kind of arrangement, by allowing everyone involved to disclaim responsibility, tends to allow corruption to flourish. This is especially likely when the direction from the White House is to treat Puerto Rico as a profit opportunity rather than a civic problem to be solved. The whole situation looks like a White House-directed plot to siphon off government funds for the personal gain of someone connected to the Trump administration. The $10 million they got away with probably seems small on the scale of activities in Washington, but it will surely rankle in Puerto Rico, where most of the island is still without power and citizens now know the restoration of the electric grid was delayed by more than a week just so someone on the mainland could get filthy rich.