Nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico lost their lives to Hurricane Maria in autumn 2017.
Following the storm, Puerto Rico experienced the second-longest blackout in history. The lack of power contributed to the death count, making food and medicine storage difficult and exposing survivors to the elements.
Now, three individuals have been arrested on charges of disaster fraud, accused of stealing more than $1.8 billion in disaster relief funds that were intended to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid, according to the Department of Justice.
The funds, made up of taxpayer dollars, were allocated to private contractor Cobra Acquisitions Energy. The company’s former president, Donald Ellison, is one of the individuals facing up to 35 years of jail time for fraud.
Ahsha Tribble, the former FEMA official in charge of relief following Hurricane Maria, and former FEMA deputy chief of staff Jovanda Patterson also face charges.
The case alleges that Ellison bribed Tribble with perks such as a credit card, private security, travel expenses, and hotels, persuading her to assist the Oklahoma-based Cobra in securing two contracts amounting to more than $1.8 billion with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
The funds were not used to rebuild the grid and were instead funneled into personal accounts and used to purchase luxury goods such as boats and cars.
“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane María,” U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez told Earther. “Instead, they decided to take advantage of the precarious conditions of our electric power grid and engaged in a bribery and honest services wire fraud scheme in order to enrich themselves illegally.”