WASHINGTON (AP) — A year after losing a $300 million no-bid contract to restore Puerto Rico's hurricane-shattered electric grid, Whitefish Energy Holdings has quietly been seeking and winning U.S. government contracts.
Founded in 2015 in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's tiny Montana hometown, Whitefish had just two employees when Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017. The company was ousted weeks later by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority amid concerns about the slow pace of recovery and eyebrow-raising charges that included electrical linemen hired at a rate of more than $300 per hour.
Records show that in June Whitefish won is a $225,000 job from the Interior Department to perform electrical work at three fish hatcheries in the state of Washington. In September, the Energy Department awarded Whitefish a more than $1 million contract to build power transmission lines in Missouri and Arkansas.
The Interior Department denied this week that Zinke, a former Montana congressman, played any role in the contract award. The department acknowledged last year that Zinke knows Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski and that the secretary's son had a summer job at one of the company's construction sites.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire said the contract was administered at the regional level "per our standard policies and procedures."
"It was a competitive contract awarded on the basis of the lowest cost, technically acceptable bid," Shire said.
The Energy Department also said its contract awarded to Whitefish by the federal Southwestern Power Administration was routine.
"Prior to the awarding of the contract, SWPA conducted all necessary and proper due diligence," said Elizabeth Nielsen, spokeswoman for the Southwestern Power Administration. "The review did not produce any concerns that would prevent SWPA from awarding the contract to Whitefish, the lowest bidder."
Records show the Energy Department previously awarded Whitefish similar construction contracts in 2016 and 2017 totaling about $1.5 million.
After Whitefish's ouster following the hurricane, members of Congress from both parties excoriated Puerto Rican officials over their handling of the $300 million contract, which they said led to outsized profits for the company. The head of the island's power authority was forced to resign.
The company on Tuesday defended its record.
"Whitefish Energy was the first to arrive on the island ... for what was immediately clear would be a daunting task," said Dan Wilson, a company spokesman. "We are grateful that the accurate record of our work in Puerto Rico is coming to light, even as our hearts remain with those on the island who are still struggling."
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