Something's Fishy...

Posted October 25, 2017

Dr. Conway's Climateside Chat, October 26, 2017

When I read that a tiny Montana-based utility infrastructure company with little experience and deep ties to the Trump administration had been awarded Puerto Rico’s largest grid rebuilding contract to date without bidding, I thought it smelled worse than low tide after a storm. Was this the story of a plucky small-town business that happened to be in the right place at the right time, or was it one of the more heinous examples of cronyism from the most unabashedly nepotistic administration in modern American history? I try to keep an open mind, but even a casual examination of the Trump administration’s track record seems to push the balance of probability heavily toward the latter.

As you can read in the articles linked below, Whitefish Energy Holdings, LLC is a small infrastructure construction company that was recently given a $300 million contract to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s hurricane-devastated electric grid. Despite many shortcomings—including only employing a handful of people, being in operation for less than two years, and having no previous contracts bigger than $1.3 million—they were given the contract without bid or public consideration of other companies.

With Whitefish’s (very limited) experience repairing power lines in mountainous areas being the only qualification they have for this monumental task, it should sadly come as no surprise that CEO Andy Techmanski has a personal relationship with a high-ranking Trump official, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Both Techmanski and Zinke deny their relationship had anything to do with Whitefish’s hiring, but my belief in their honesty is yet another unfortunate victim of Trump’s post-truth society. If it looks like a dead, rotting fish and smells like a dead, rotting fish it will take some powerful evidence to convince me that it's not.

So let’s ignore the fishmongers for now and look at the facts:

1. Whitefish did not go through a normal bidding process for the contract. Puerto Rico’s grid operator, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), claims they did not put out requests for proposals to other companies because they did not have the funds, but agreed to pay Whitefish employees and contractors hundreds of dollars per hour. Techmanski told CNN that the deal was made over the phone with PREPA based on Whitefish’s experience working in mountainous areas. Normally, the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA oversee contracts such as these during emergency response, but both claim that PREPA made the award without consulting them.

2. Whitefish is not the most qualified, cheapest, or timeliest option. Whitefish verified they had two employees before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and they have been in operation for less than two years. This makes them objectively less qualified than other more experienced grid construction companies. Whitefish’s strategy in Puerto Rico has been to hire hundreds of subcontractors and cut themselves a slice of the profit, something PREPA could have done themselves for a fraction of the cost. They also were not brought in until six days after Hurricane Maria hit, despite other companies being ready and waiting.

3. Whitefish has multiple connections with the Trump administration. As noted above, Whitefish CEO Techmanski has a personal relationship with Interior Secretary Zinke, who Techmanski asked to “free up resources” to help them do business in Puerto Rico. In addition, HBC Investments, which is a major financier for Whitefish, has multiple ties to the Trump administration.

4. Members of the Trump administration have engaged in nepotism/cronyism on multiple occasions, and are themselves the benefactors of nepotistic behavior. Trump and his nominees are the least qualified administration in recent history. From Zinke to Ivanka Trump to Donald Trump himself, the current administration has made it clear that it values “loyalty” over merit. The hiring of a company based solely on a personal relationship is consistent with this ideology.

Taken as a whole, what this hiring of an unnecessary middleman looks like is a handout to a “friend” of the Trump administration in order to squeeze big profits from an impoverished area predominantly populated by non-whites. It looks like high-profile, unabashed disaster capitalism and shock-doctrine cronyism. It looks like an enthusiastic embracing of exploitative colonialism, which is deeply rooted in the same bone-deep American racism that Trump and Russian “hackers” manipulated to put a self-proclaimed rapist and white supremacist into what was the most powerful position in the world.

Of course, none of this is conclusive proof. But it sure looks fishy, doesn’t it?

—Jon Conway, Ph.D., Greenpower Research Director


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