Small company awarded big Puerto Rico contract has ties to Trump administration

WASHINGTON -- It's been more than a month since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, leaving its power grid in shambles.

Now, 75 percent of the island is still without power, and lawmakers in both parties are asking why a small Montana company was granted a $300 million, no-bid contract to help rebuild transmission and distribution lines.

"My biggest concern is we don't have enough information as to the process that went into that," said Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, who chairs the House committee that oversees Puerto Rico.

The government power company -- known as PREPA -- signed the contract with Whitefish Energy, a two-person, two-year-old company whose largest previous federal contract had been for $1.3 million to upgrade lines in Arizona.

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Whitefish Energy has been awarded a $300 million contract.

CBS News

PREPA filed for bankruptcy in July amid the island's ongoing debt crisis. It bypassed a network of utilities and a "mutual aid" system that is usually activated for storm recovery.

The $300 million contract is the biggest yet for Puerto Rico's recovery effort -- and for Whitefish, which relies on subcontractors for their work. 

"This appears to be a pretty small company," said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. "Are they capable of doing the job that they're being asked?"

Murkowski, the chair of the energy committee, expects a hearing on Puerto Rico in the next week. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell is calling for the Government Accountability Office to investigate. 

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Whitefish Energy's subcontractor rates.

CBS News

The company's subcontractor rates are also raising questions: $462 per hour for a supervisor and $319 for a lineman. 

And its ties to the administration are under scrutiny. Whitefish is backed by HBC Investments. That firm's founder and general partner Joe Colonnetta gave $33,000 to the campaign of then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is now Energy secretary. Colonnetta and his wife gave $28,200 to President Trump.

Additionally, Whitefish founder and CEO Andy Techmanski knows Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke -- and Whitefish is based in Zinke's hometown.

The Interior Department and Whitefish say Zinke played no role in the contract. And the company says Colonnetta didn't either. Whitefish officials say they were willing to work for $2 million up front while the other company that PREPA was considering wanted $25 million. On Wednesday night, Puerto Rico's governor said he will be reviewing the contracting process. 

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    Julianna Goldman is a CBS News correspondent based in the Washington bureau.