Who is Whitefish Energy?
In the span of a single week, the question turned anyone who inquired down a dizzying path, tracking a cluttered narrative that led a small, unknown energy company from its headquarters in Whitefish to the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico, where it quickly marshaled hundreds of workers to help restore a devastated power grid before being ousted amid intense controversy.
The company’s unlikely rise peaked on Oct. 29 when, under increasing pressure from Gov. Ricardo Rossello, the head of Puerto Rico’s government-owned power company announced the utility was canceling a $300 million contract brokered a month prior with Whitefish Energy Holdings, the small firm hired to restore the island’s power system following Hurricane Maria.
During the brief but tumultuous period that began when Whitefish Energy ferried its first batch of work crews to the island on Sept. 26 and ended Sunday with the terse culmination of its lucrative contract, national reports and government officials had drawn dubious connections, however tenuous, between company CEO Andy Techmanski and the Trump administration — mainly via wealthy Republican donors and Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native whose son briefly worked for the company — while congressional leaders and oversight committees called for a multitude of investigations and audits.
Incredulous cable television hosts on major national networks wondered how an unknown company from a remote corner of Montana could land such a high-ticket deal with so much at stake. Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency distanced themselves from the contract, expressing surprise at the decision to award it to Whitefish Energy.
A Twitter spat erupted between San Juan Mayor Carmin Yulin Cruz, who publicly questioned the transparency of the contract, and Whitefish Energy, whose account called her comments “demoralizing” and appeared to threaten to stop working altogether.
“We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?” the company tweeted.
The company later apologized for its comments.
When national media outlets obtained copies of the contract, the document’s finer points revealed high-ticket wages, expensive equipment and helicopter rentals, as well as a prohibitive clause restricting the government of Puerto Rico from auditing its expense reports. Details of the contract only fanned the flames of speculation.
All the while, Techmanski and the head of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) maintained that nothing was amiss, pointing to the 350 workers Whitefish Energy had mobilized in less than a month as evidence of efficiency. The company’s Facebook page and Twitter feed filled with images and updates of the work it had completed on two major transmission lines that bisected rugged mountain ranges, leading to the restoration of power at hospitals, businesses and homes.
Whitefish Energy Spokesman Chris Chiames issued assurances that the deal was fully above board, that media reports were misguided and speculative, and explained that the company had been in discussions with PREPA even before Hurricane Maria struck.
“The question of how we got the contract is a legitimate one with a simple response,” Chiames stated in an email. “We had been talking to PREPA before Hurricane Maria struck the island to discuss our capabilities. When Maria hit, we called PREPA, they knew our experience in mountainous regions because we had discussed our work previously, we were able to fly into San Juan and help PREPA devise a plan to restore the grid in the mountains particularly, and do so in quickly. And we were put to work.”
He also lauded Techmanski’s experience of more than 20 years rebuilding transmission lines in mountainous regions consistent with the task at hand in Puerto Rico, and the company’s roster of qualified journeymen linemen who work on an on-call basis. Chiames dismissed reports that the company was under-qualified and inexperienced because it had just “two full-time employees,” emphasizing that it’s not uncommon for a footloose company to mobilize a sizable workforce in the face of an emergency or disaster.
“When a contract is awarded we activate our network of linemen and companies we work with to begin the project,” Chiames said. “In the case of Whitefish we activated our team, had boots on the ground, and began repairs within a week.”
Still, the flurry of reports questioning the transparency of the deal and casting doubt on the company’s ability to dispatch the job efficiently ultimately diluted confidence in Puerto Rico, as did disavowals from White House officials and Zinke, who said on Twitter he had no knowledge of or influence over the contract.
When the announcement came that Puerto Rico was scrapping the deal, Ricardo Ramos, head of PREPA, said the issue had become “an enormous distraction” that was “negatively impacting the work we’re already doing,” but was complimentary of Whitefish Energy’s work.
He said canceling the contract could lead to delays of 10 to 12 weeks in completing the work.
On Oct. 31, Whitefish Energy issued a statement saying it would complete its work currently underway, after which point subcontractors who wish to remain on the island will be allowed to continue under management by PREPA directly, or another entity designated to manage future work.
Until that time, Whitefish Energy has agreed to manage the work during the “wind-down process,” according to the statement.
“For over a month, through a fast-paced and challenging operational environment, Whitefish Energy has worked side-by-side with the engineering and operations team of PREPA to repair and rebuild the electric transmission system,” the statement continues. “We stand by our work and commitment to this mission and have not let the external distractions impact the pace of power restoration which is ahead of the 30 percent goal for the end of October established by Governor Rosselló. Our commitment to the people of Puerto Rico means we will use every effort to transition the processes we have built with the PREPA team and to finish tasks at hand, so that the critical repairs made since October 2, that are now coming online, can continue in a safe, orderly fashion, for the sake of the people of Puerto Rico still awaiting power.”
Rossello said earlier that nearly $8 million has been paid to Whitefish so far.
Rossello said he has requested assistance from crews in New York and Florida.
In an emailed statement late Sunday afternoon, Whitefish Energy Holdings defended its work in Puerto Rico, expressed disappointment over the cancellation and pledged to fulfill any commitments PREPA wishes it to carry out.
“We are very disappointed in the decision by Governor Rosselló to ask PREPA to cancel the contract which led to PREPA’s announcement this afternoon,” according to the statement. “The decision will only delay what the people of Puerto Rico want and deserve — to have the power restored quickly in the same manner their fellow citizens on the mainland experience after a natural disaster. We will certainly finish any work that PREPA wants us to complete and stand by our commitments knowing that we made an important contribution to the restoration of the power grid since our arrival on the island on October 2.”