Ryan Zinke Denies Whitefish Energy's Puerto Rico Power Deal Had Anything To Do With Him
As Puerto Rico struggles to get back on its feet after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory, another source of tension emerged after reports surfaced of a tiny Montana-based company scoring a major contract to restore electricity to the island. Whitefish Energy reportedly had ties to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and on Friday, Zinke denied involvement in Whitefish Energy's Puerto Rico contract, saying that he encouraged investigators to assess Whitefish Energy Holdings, a company that, when Maria struck, employed only two full-time staff.
In an official statement relased Friday evening, Zinke said:
I had absolutely nothing to do with Whitefish Energy receiving a contract in Puerto Rico. Any attempts by the dishonest media or political operatives to tie me to awarding or influencing any contract involving Whitefish are completely baseless. Only in elitist Washington, D.C., would being from a small town be considered a crime.
Zinke came under media scrutiny when the The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Whitefish's CEO, Andy Techmanski, knew the Interior Secretary. Zinke's son also reportedly worked for Whitefish one summer, and the company is based in Montana. Zinke's office told the Post that Montana is a small town where "everybody knows everybody."
But the interior secretary denied he or his office "advocated for this company" in any way. "After the initial contract was awarded, I was contacted by the company, on which I took no action," Zinke said Friday. "All records, which are being available to appropriate officials, will prove no involvement. I welcome any and all investigations into these allegations, and encourage the Interior Department's Inspector General to investigate this matter fully."
It isn't only Zinke who is making an effort to step away from the spotlight thrown on Whitefish Energy. The White House itself has become ensnared in the ongoing subject. On Friday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "This is a contract that was determined by the local authorities in Puerto Rico, not something that the federal government played a role in. But as we understand, there is an ongoing audit and we’ll look forward to seeing the results of that later."
According to Sanders, Trump himself has contacted Zinke to understand the matter. The president "did ask Secretary Zinke, just for clarification purposes, and he reiterated once again that we have no role, the federal government, and specifically he had no role in that contract," Sanders told the press.
The Daily Beast reported that the founder of one of Whitefish's top investors, HBC Investments, contributed to Trump's election campaign. In 2016, Joe Colonnetta reportedly donated to pro-Trump PACs, Trump's own campaign, and the Republican National Committee.
Whitefish's $300 million contract to restore power to Puerto Rico has been roundly criticized by the public and lawmakers. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello have blasted the deal, and politicians on the mainland have called for an investigation. Many have expressed suspicion over how such a massive contract came to be agreed upon between the PREPA members and Whitefish Energy, a company that almost no one has heard of before.
Some of the most vociferous criticism from observers against the company came on Wednesday after it threatened to leave Puerto Rico amid Cruz's criticism. In a tweet directed at Cruz, Whitefish's account wrote, "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?"
Shortly after it threatened to pull out of Puerto Rico, Cruz responded, "@WhitefishEnergy implies that you will not treat the City of San Juan with the diligence it deserves. Thus admitting political motivations." The company apologized for its comments by releasing an official statement, "Mayor Cruz and everyone in Puerto Rico — on behalf of our employees, we would like to apologize for our comments earlier today, which did not represent who we are and how important this work is to help Puerto Rico's recovery."