Private contracts for work in Puerto Rico raise eyebrows

An aerial view shows the flooded neighbourhood of Juana Matos in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Catano, Puerto Rico, on September 22, 2017. ...

In recent generations, Watergate is the touchstone political scandal that serves as a point of comparison for every controversy that's followed it, but for much of the 20th century, there was an entirely different scandal that filled that role. It was called Teapot Dome.

There was quite a bit to the controversy, but roughly speaking, the trouble started with the Secretary of the Interior in the Harding administration helping arrange suspect government contracts. An investigation ensued, and the result was a cabinet secretary going to prison -- a first in the United States.

Keep that in mind when reading today's Washington Post report on a new government contract that's raising eyebrows.

For the sprawling effort to restore Puerto Rico's crippled electrical grid, the territory's state-owned utility has turned to a two-year-old company from Montana that had just two full-time employees on the day Hurricane Maria made landfall.The company, Whitefish Energy, said last week that it had signed a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to repair and reconstruct large portions of the island's electrical infrastructure. The contract is the biggest yet issued in the troubled relief effort.

As the Post's report makes clear, officials could have activated "mutual aid" arrangements it has with other utilities -- a method other areas have utilized in the wake of other natural disasters -- but in this case, that didn't happen, and it's not clear why,.

Susan Tierney, a former senior official at the Energy Department and state regulatory agencies, told the newspaper, "The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why [the utility] would go to Whitefish. I'm scratching my head wondering how it all adds up."

Complicating matters a bit, Whitefish Energy is located in Whitefish, Mont., which also happens to be Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's home town.

It's worth emphasizing that the Republican cabinet secretary, who's been caught up in a series of unrelated controversies, insists that he had nothing to do with the Whitefish Energy, and as best as I can tell, there's no publicly available evidence to the contrary.

That said, the circumstances seem odd, especially since, "the scale of the disaster in Puerto Rico is far larger than anything Whitefish has handled," the Post's article added. The House Committee on Natural Resources is reportedly examining Whitefish's role in Puerto Rico.

The story comes on the heels of related questions, which Rachel noted on the show late last week, about FEMA awarding dubious contracts in the wake of recent natural disasters.

Right about now, I suspect the Trump administration wished it had a more reliable reputation for ethical behavior.

Postscript: Donald Trump last week gushed about how impressed he is with his response to the crisis in Puerto Rico, giving himself a "10" out of 10 on the scale he made up for himself.