Principal defendants in Cobra bribery case plead guilty
Part of PREPA debt with grid repair contractor could be invalidated
By The Star Staff
The defendants in the corruption case that charged a former Cobra Acquisitions head with paying bribes to certain former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials to obtain a contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) after the island power grid was destroyed during the 2017 hurricane season pleaded guilty to the charges Wednesday.
Then-Cobra President Donald Keith Ellison had been charged with giving gifts to Asha Nateef Tribble, the former chief of FEMA’s Energy and Infrastructure sector, who allegedly exerted pressure over PREPA to give the contract to Cobra.
It was on May 2 of this year that the two had asked the court to vacate the trial date as they would be pleading guilty. Another defendant, Cobra employee Jovanda Patterson, had pleaded guilty over two years ago.
The judge then set a hearing for Wednesday.
With the change of plea, the parties must now inform U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is presiding over Puerto Rico’s Title III bankruptcy processes and who must decide whether PREPA, which filed for bankruptcy in 2017, should pay about $268 million to Cobra for work to repair the grid destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
PREPA had paid Cobra more than $1 billion for repairs on PREPA’s grid following hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017. But the utility stopped making payments to the contractor after Ellison was charged with securing the contracts by delivering kickbacks to FEMA officials.
Swain had stayed Cobra’s plea for payment pending the outcome of the criminal trial.
PREPA has until next month to end negotiations to restructure some $9 billion in debt after the government canceled a plan of adjustment negotiated in 2019.
Cobra’s lawyer Abid Qureshi had expressed frustration to Swain in court hearings over the lack of progress and unfairness of the situation to obtain payment from PREPA for work completed in March 2019.
Hadassa Waxman, a lawyer for the Financial Oversight and Management Board, had told the court that events such as the criminal trial may result in the invalidation of some of PREPA’s obligations to Cobra. Waxman had said PREPA may not need to pay Cobra at all if officials are found guilty because Puerto Rico law does not allow it to contract with companies convicted of certain crimes.