White House Says It Had No Involvement in Puerto Rico Contract With Whitefish Energy

The White House said Friday the federal government had no involvement in the decision to award a $300 million contract to help restore Puerto Rico’s power grid to a tiny Montana company in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown.

Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president had asked Zinke about the contract and that the cabinet secretary said he had nothing to do with it.

“He had no role in that contract,” Sanders said of Zinke. “This was a state and local decision made by the Puerto Rican authorities and not the federal government.”

The administration is seeking to distance itself from the issue amid a growing number of investigations and a bipartisan chorus of criticism from Capitol Hill.

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, an agency watchdog, confirmed Friday that federal auditors will review the Whitefish contract.

“As part of their standard procedure, they will conduct vetting to look for the presence of any inappropriate relationships,” said Arlen Morales, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said in a statement earlier Friday that any language in the controversial contract saying the agency approved of the deal with Whitefish Energy Holdings is inaccurate. The contract, which was awarded by PREPA, said the utility would not pay costs unallowable under FEMA grants, but it also said, “The federal government is not a party to this contract.”

FEMA said it has not approved any reimbursement requests from the utility for money to cover ongoing repairs to the island’s power grid following Hurricane Maria.

The agency said its initial review raised significant concerns about how Whitefish got the deal and whether the contracted prices were reasonable. The 2-year-old company had just two full-time employees when the storm hit Sept. 20. It has since hired more than 300 workers.

The Interior Department has denied that Zinke, a former Montana congressman, played any role in the contract award. Zinke knows Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski “because they both live in a small town where everyone knows everyone,” a spokeswoman said. Zinke’s son had a summer job at a Whitefish construction site.

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SOURCE: CBS News, The Associated Press