Nothing could be less suspicious than a tiny, two-year-old company—whose resumé includes repairing a few miles of electrical line in Arizona—scoring a $300 million contract with Puerto Rico’s electrical company, right? Whitefish Energy, a company that had only two full-time employees a month ago, has done just that.
Last week, the Montana-based firm signed a multimillion dollar contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to rebuild the island’s power lines, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the contract. While the Army Corps of Engineers typically advises such contracts, curiously, their input was absent during negotiations.
Why Whitefish Energy? One clue could be that it’s based in a small Montana town, Whitefish, where Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke coincidentally happens to be from. “Everyone knows everybody,” Zinke’s office said in an email to the Post denying he had anything to do with Whitefish’s contract, though he did admit knew the company’s chief executive, Andy Techmanski. One of Zinke’s sons even worked as a “flagger” for Whitefish over the summer, he conceded.
Shortly after Whitefish signed its contract with PREPA, Techmanski told a NBC affiliate in Montana that he had been in touch with the Interior Secretary to “free up resources.”
Beyond Zinke’s evident connection to Techmanski (and, tangentially, a slew of white supremacists), the contract has stunned current and former energy experts. Here’s what Susan F. Tierney, a former Energy Department official, told The Post:
“The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why [the utility] would go to Whitefish,” said Susan F. Tierney, a former senior official at the Energy Department and state regulatory agencies. “I’m scratching my head wondering how it all adds up.”
By Techmanski’s account, it all came down to a simple phone call. “We specialize in difficult and mountainous terrain projects. So all I can say is, we took the call and we’re here,” he told CNN on Friday, explaining how Whitefish’s contract with PREPA came to be. “We called each other.” It’s, uh, apparently that easy?
Separately, Ricardo Ramos, PREPA’s chief executive, said that the company’s procurement employees (and not himself) sealed the reconstruction deal with Whitefish over satellite phone a few days after Hurricane Maria hit.
However chummy Zinke and Techmanski are will prove inconsequential to whether Whitefish can actually handle the job—and the House Committee on Natural Resources has already taken note of the previously little-known company’s massive contract. “The size and unknown details of this contract raises numerous questions,”a spokesman for the committee told The Post.