Montana power-line firm still seeking payment for Puerto Rico hurricane work

Downed power lines in the wake of the September 2017 hurricane on Puerto Rico.

(KPAX) In the wake of a federal audit that says Puerto Rico properly hired his company to restore the island’s power grid after Hurricane Maria in 2017, the CEO of Whitefish Energy says it’s well past time the power-line firm got paid the $106 million owed for its work.

But Andy Techmanski told MTN News this month he’s still waiting – and is increasingly frustrated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) still won’t approve payment.

He also had harsh words for Montana’s congressional delegation, saying they’ve been of little help to a Montana firm that’s essentially had its business wiped out because of bureaucratic delays and indifference.

“The biggest problem is we just don’t have a champion,” Techmanski said. “It wouldn’t have taken a lot of energy from any of them to do the right thing for a Montana business. … Where they should be ashamed is that they’ve cost Montana a lot of jobs in the end.”

He said the non-payment has left his company “completely destroyed” – instead of emerging from the Puerto Rico work as a successful transmission-line contractor ready to take on bigger jobs.

“Had we been paid, we would have had some money in the bank, a good reputation … I would have hired hundreds more Montanans,” he said.

Whitefish Energy CEO Andy Techmanski.

Techmanski said he’s appealed several times to Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte to intervene on his behalf with FEMA, but that they’ve not aggressively pursued it.

FEMA told MTN News last week that it’s “continuing to review documentation pertaining to Whitefish Energy company” and expects that review to be done by the end of the year.

FEMA is reviewing whether it will reimburse the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which can’t afford to pay Whitefish Energy without the federal reimbursement.

FEMA said the review includes an examination of whether the work Whitefish performed in Puerto Rico is “eligible and costs are reasonable.”

The July audit, while saying PREPA complied with procurement guidelines when it hired Whitefish Energy, also said the costs of the contract “may not be reasonable.”

Techmanski maintains the costs were in line with what PREPA paid other contractors doing work after the Hurricane. He also notes that FEMA approved payments of $850 million to another power-line contractor – whose president was later arrested for bribery, in connection with the contracts.

Tester’s office said he has pushed FEMA to “make a determination on the matter swiftly” and that he plans to provide “strict oversight over FEMA” to make sure it’s doing its job.

Daines office said only that the case remains under investigation.

Techmanski said he’s been hearing the same sort of statements for more than two years now, while his business has dried up and he’s had to lay off all but a few workers.

States, local governments and private power companies are reluctant to hire Whitefish Energy, citing its huge unpaid debt for the Puerto Rico job, he said.

“They all want to see your financials, because they want to make sure you can complete a project without leaving sub-contractors and customers unpaid,” he said. “One by one, states start closing their doors (to us). `You’re $100 million in debt,’ they say – there is no way you’re going to do business in our state.’”

Whitefish Energy, a transmission-line construction firm, was the first firm to get a contract to start rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017.

Yet its contract with PREPA ignited a media firestorm, after it was suggested Whitefish Energy gained the contract because of favoritism by the Trump administration and ties to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who’s from Whitefish.

Techmanski said he doesn’t know Zinke and that his winning the contract had nothing to do with the Trump administration. Zinke has said the same.

Techmanski told MTN News that he’d worked earlier in his career in Puerto Rico and knew the terrain, so he began emailing officials at PREPA just before Maria hit, offering his company’s services.

Whitefish Energy was the first power-line firm on the ground in Puerto Rico and repaired two-thirds of the transmission-line capacity in 60 days, Techmanski said – including work done after the contract was canceled, due to political pressure in the wake of the false allegations about favoritism.

The audit by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security did question some of Whitefish Energy’s charges. It said the company significantly increased rates for some equipment and personnel, over what it proposed in its initial agreement.

Techmanski said rates charged by Whitefish Energy were within 5 percent to 10 percent of what other transmission-line contractors charged – and that Whitefish actually did more work, for far less money.

“Rates aside, you have to look at … what you get, for what you paid,” he said. “You can charge a dollar an hour for a guy, but if they don’t do anything, you’re not getting any `reasonableness’ in the rates.”