Puerto Rico has agreed to pay a reported $300 million for the restoration of its power grid to a tiny utility company that is primarily financed by a private-equity firm founded and run by a man who contributed large sums of money to President Trump, an investigation conducted by The Daily Beast has found.
Whitefish Energy Holdings, which had a reported staff of only two full-time employees when Hurricane Maria touched down, appears ill-equipped to handle the daunting task of restoring electricity to Puerto Rico’s more than 3 million residents.
Much larger utilities are more commonly used following natural disasters on the scale of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island last month.
The private-equity firm that finances Whitefish, HBC Investments, was founded by Joe Colonnetta, who serves as its general partner.
Federal Elections Commission data compiled by The Daily Beast shows Colonnetta contributed $20,000 to the Trump Victory PAC during the general election, $2,700 to Trump’s primary election campaign (then the maximum amount permitted), $2,700 to Trump’s general election campaign (also the maximum), and a total of $30,700 to the Republican National Committee in 2016 alone.
Colonnetta’s wife, Kimberly, is no stranger to Republican politics either; shortly after Trump’s victory, she gave $33,400 to the Republican National Committee, the maximum contribution permitted for party committees in 2016.
Joe Colonnetta is not the only Republican connection to the controversial Whitefish contract. On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Whitefish Chief Executive Officer Andy Techmanski is friends with Trump administration Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Moreover, Whitefish is located in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Monatana.
Luis Vega-Ramos, member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, told The Daily Beast, “Whitefish’s most important expertise or assets seems to have been… having the U.S. secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, as their former congressman and current ally and having the wisdom to retain the services of key people close to the governor [of Puerto Rico].”
Zinke isn’t the only member of the Trump administration with a connection to the Whitefish contract. In addition to the Colonnettas’ contributions to Trump’s presidential campaign, Kimberly Colonnetta’s Facebook page contains a photo of her with Ben Carson, Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development. Another photo appears to show Kimberly Colonnetta with Trump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Both photos were posted the week of Trump’s inauguration.
“Whitefish seems to be nothing more than a glorified middleman to get the real providers of the services, with which PREPA [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] could have contracted directly,” Vega-Ramos said. “It is a cozy sweetheart deal in which Whitefish gets a gratuity for subcontracting the actual providers.”
Federal agencies like FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which are ordinarily responsible for evaluating contracts for disaster responses, have attempted to distance themselves from the Whitefish contract. FEMA did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the contract. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on the other hand, told The Daily Beast that it “does not comment on contracting decisions made by external organizations that do not involve USACE.”
However, PREPA spokesman Carlos Monroig Aceveda told weather.com that its contracts “are evaluated and awarded by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in coordination with FEMA, which disburses the money.”
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Vega-Ramos said, “It is reprehensible that shameless profiteering is going on literally on the back of the devastated people of Puerto Rico. It is beyond contempt and people should answer for it.”
The Colonnettas’ contributions to the Republican Party precede the Trump administration. For example, in October 2011, Joe Colonnetta contributed $30,000 to the RNC; in 2008, he gave $26,200 to the RNC and $28,500 to the McCain Victory Committee. During both years, Kimberly Colonnetta also contributed thousands to various Republican campaigns.
Joe Colonnetta’s relationship with the GOP is not limited to his contributions; he’s a prominent figure in Texas Republican politics. According to HBC’s website, in 2013 then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Colonnetta as a trustee for the Retirement System of Texas; in 2015, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Colonnetta to serve as chairman of the investment committee also at the Retirement System of Texas; and the same year, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed Colonnetta to his policy advisory committee.
Updated 10:45am to correct Colonnettas’ contribution amount from $27,000 to $2,700.