WASHINGTON — Multiple congressional committees are investigating a $300 million contract awarded to a small Montana company in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that was tapped to help restore Puerto Rico's damaged power grid.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority awarded the contract to tiny Whitefish Energy Holdings to restore transmission and distribution lines damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Maria. The 2-year-old company had just two full-time employees when the storm hit last month.
In the House, leaders of the Natural Resources and Energy and Commerce committees sent letters Thursday seeking documents about the contract, saying circumstances surrounding the award raise troubling questions.
Meanwhile, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, vowed to hold a hearing on the issue. Two Democrats, Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington state and Ron Wyden of Oregon, formally requested an investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
Cantwell and Wyden questioned whether the contract cost was inflated, especially since work crews provided under mutual-aid agreements from other public utilities were available but not used.
The lawmakers also complained about the "opaque and limited nature" of the bidding process conducted by the Puerto Rico authority and "contemporaneous communications" between Whitefish officials and senior members of the Trump administration, including Zinke. Cantwell is senior Democrat on the Senate Energy panel, while Wyden is top Democrat on Senate Finance.
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.
Bipartisan leaders of the House Energy and Commerce panel said questions raised about Whitefish's involvement in recovery efforts make it "important to develop a clear understanding of the facts."
The committee requested a series of documents from Whitefish and asked for a briefing for committee staff by Nov. 9. The letter is signed by Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., senior Democrat Frank Pallone of New Jersey and three other committee members.
Separately, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah and Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, chairman of an oversight and investigations subcommittee, asked the Puerto Rican power authority for all documents related to the Whitefish contract.
While speed is necessary in an emergency such as Hurricane Maria, "transparency and accountability in government contracting" must never be compromised, they wrote in a letter to Ricardo Ramos, the power authority's executive director.
Ramos said in a radio interview Thursday that Whitefish is doing an "excellent job," adding that he has no intention of canceling the contract. "There's been nothing illegal here," Ramos said.
As scrutiny on the company intensified, Whitefish Energy tweeted an apology to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, with whom the company had engaged in a lengthy Twitter spat on Wednesday.
After Cruz tweeted a criticism of the company Wednesday, Whitefish Energy Holdings shot back: “We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city and 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”
In its apology, Whitefish Energy said its earlier tweets did not “represent who we are.”
Nicole Daigle, a spokeswoman for Murkowski, said the Whitefish deal "is a very large contract for a relatively new and small company, and Sen. Murkowski intends to find out more about it."
The committee expects to explore the contract at a hearing next month on hurricane recovery efforts and reconstruction of the electric grids in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Daigle said.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said he did not know Whitefish or its CEO, Techmanski.
"The first I heard of the Whitefish Energy contract was through the news. I was surprised that such a small company from Montana got the contract," Daines said.
Missoulian staff and Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.