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Whitefish Energy Backer Has Ties To Energy Secretary

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An investment firm backing a Montana company that won a major contract to restore power in Puerto Rico has ties with the secretary of Energy, whose department has been involved in power restoration on the island since before the lights went out.

Texas-based HBC Investments invested in Whitefish Energy this past August, a month before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and left the U.S. territory in the dark.

Joe Colonnetta is a founding and general partner of HBC Investments, and he donated more than $40,000 to Rick Perry’s campaigns for governor, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. As governor, Perry appointed Colonnetta as a trustee to the Teacher’s Retirement System of Texas.

"Joe and the secretary have known each other for many years,” says Ken Luce, a spokesperson for both Whitefish Energy and HBC Investments.

Luce says Colonnetta, along with many other businessmen, were appointed as administrators and trustees over Perry’s 16 year tenure as governor.

"They're friends, but I don’t know if they talk and chat, but they obviously had a good relationship in Texas and the governor is fond of all of his supporters and friends in Texas and I’m sure over time they’ve said hello and caught up."

Perry is now the energy secretary, and his department has been part of the power restoration effort since day one. The Department of Energy sent a team to Puerto Rico the day after Hurricane Maria made landfall to help with damage assessments, and the department continues to work closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing power restoration on the island.

Ricardo Ramos is the chief executive officer for the Puerto Rican utility. He says the utility agreed to contract with Whitefish Energy before Hurricane Maria hit.

"We got recommendations from other companies that Whitefish had either worked under them, or they had worked for Whitefish on their other contracts. We got the information, we saw their capabilities. Certainly they’re showing up as any other big company that do this kind or work."

A spokesperson for the Department of Energy says neither the Department nor Secretary Perry recommended Whitefish Energy to the utility.

Ken Luce, a spokesperson for both Whitefish Energy and HBC Investments, also says HBC played no role in that company securing the contract.

"I don’t think Andy gets the credit for having the gumption to go to Puerto Rico and do what he’s even doing today and having 300 people working there, and that gets lost in conspiracy theories that are almost like the JFK assassination. At the end of the day, Andy’s doing great work on the island and other companies aren’t even there."

The contract is drawing scrutiny from Puerto Rican officials and members of Congress. The House Natural Resources Committee Thursday wrote a letter to the utility’s executive director. It says the size and terms of the contract, along with how it was formed, raise questions. The Committee also says it’s examining the utility’s decision not to activate mutual aid, which is typical in mass power outages following natural disasters.

On Wednesday the governor of Puerto Rico called for an audit of the utility’s contracts. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, he wrote the contract itself complies with Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations, but there are additional questions about how the contract was procured.

Whitefish Energy has a full year to complete its $300 million contract with the Puerto Rican electric utility, according to the contract. And that contract, posted online by the news outlet Caribbean Business last week, also says the Puerto Rican utility paid $3.7 million to Whitefish Energy already for mobilization of personnel and equipment.

Whitefish Energy spokesperson Chris Chiames says work is slow going.

"So we’re pleased with the work, there’s a lot more to be done, and there are a lot of other parties that have to do their piece of this work to get electrical power back to all the people of Puerto Rico."

As of Thursday, nearly three-quarters of the island are still without power.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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