FEMA Deputy Regional Administrator, Former President Of Cobra Acquisitions, LLC, And Another Former FEMA Employee Indicted For Conspiracy To Commit Bribery, Honest Services Wire Fraud, Disaster Fraud, Among Other Charges
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico– Ahsha Nateef Tribble, a FEMA Region II, Deputy Regional Administrator; Donald Keith Ellison, former President of Cobra Acquisitions, LLC; and Jovanda R. Patterson, a.k.a. “Jo/Jojo,” former FEMA Deputy Chief of Staff, have been indicted and arrested on charges of: conspiracy to commit bribery of public officials; acts affecting a personal financial interest; false statements; disaster fraud; honest services wire fraud, Travel Act violations, and wire fraud, announced U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez of the District of Puerto Rico. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Inspector General (OIG), conducted the investigation with support from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The indictment returned Tuesday, September 3, 2019, by a federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico, includes 15 counts against the following individuals:
- Ahsha Nateef Tribble - Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Region II, Deputy Regional Administrator, assigned to work in Puerto Rico as part of FEMA’s response to Hurricane María. From October 2017 to September 2018, Tribble was also the Sector Lead for Power and Infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the Recovery Office Deputy Director – Infrastructure Directorate/Disaster Recovery Manager in the Office of the FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer.
- Donald Keith Ellison - President of Cobra Acquisitions, LLC until June 2019;
- Jovanda R. Patterson, a.k.a. “Jo/Jojo,” - FEMA Deputy Chief of Staff, assigned to San Juan, PR from October 2017 to March 2018. Patterson resigned from her position with FEMA in July 2018 to work for Cobra Energy LLC.
The indictment alleges that the defendants used Tribble’s positions in FEMA to benefit and enrich themselves and defraud the United States. Following the passage of Hurricane María over Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, Ahsha Nateef Tribble, Donald Keith Ellison, and Jovanda R. Patterson came to Puerto Rico as part of the recovery and restoration of Puerto Rico’s electric power grid. In Tribble’s position as Sector Lead and Deputy Director, she reported directly to the Federal Coordinating Officer and was FEMA’s primary leader as to the restoration of electric power on the island.
Ellison was President of Cobra Acquisitions, LLC (COBRA), the main contractor for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) as to recovery work performed following Hurricane María. PREPA executed two contracts with COBRA with a total contract value of approximately $1,845,429,800.00. Work performed under both contracts was paid through PREPA with federal funds from FEMA.
From October 2017 to April 2019, Tribble and Ellison developed a personal relationship wherein Ellison provided Tribble with things of value with the intent to influence Tribble’s performance of official acts. Ellison provided Tribble with personal helicopter use, hotel accommodations, airfare, personal security services, and the use of a credit card. As part of Ellison’s pattern of providing things of value to Tribble, he also secured employment within COBRA’s affiliated companies for her friend, defendant Patterson. In exchange, Tribble performed official acts, including influencing, advising, and exerting pressure on PREPA and FEMA officials, in order to award restoration work to COBRA and accelerate payments to COBRA.
Count 1 of the Indictment charges Tribble and Ellison with a conspiracy to commit bribery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 based on soliciting and giving things of value to Tribble in order to influence Tribble’s performance of official acts as a FEMA employee. To further the conspiracy, Tribble and Ellison communicated using private email accounts, private cellular telephones, including a disposable prepaid cellular number, Apple iMessage, and SMS texts rather than FEMA issued email accounts or cellular telephones.
Counts 2 through 5 of the Indictment charge Tribble and Ellison with honest services wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1346, 1343 pertaining to the defendant’s scheme to deprive the United States and its citizens of the honest services of Tribble, a public official.
Count 6 of the Indictment charges Tribble and Ellison with disaster fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1040. Despite Ellison’s duty to disclose to PREPA all information and circumstances of its relationships with third persons, and Tribble’s duty to refuse gifts from prohibited sources, Tribble and Ellison concealed Tribble’s receipt and acceptance of things of value from Ellison.
Counts 7 through 10 of the Indictment charge Tribble with Travel Act violations prohibited by 18 U.S.C. § 1952(a)(3) pertaining to her use of interstate wire and electronic communications, with the intent to promote, manage, establish, and carry on the bribery scheme.
Counts 11 and 12 of the Indictment charge Ellison with false statements in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001. On March 15, 2019, Ellison stated to FBI and DHS OIG agents as a part of a voluntary interview, that he had no personal relationship with Tribble and was only around her in relation to business. He also stated that he had not taken a helicopter trip with Tribble on or about February 7, 2018. Ellison knew both statements were false.
Count 13 of the Indictment charges Patterson with committing acts affecting personal financial conflicts of interest in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 208. While Patterson was negotiating employment with COBRA and its affiliates from March to July 2018, Patterson participated as a FEMA employee in a May 8, 2018 Past Performance Evaluation for Cobra Logistics LLC as a part of a vendor bid process.
Counts 14 and 15 of the Indictment charge Patterson with wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343. While negotiating employment with COBRA and its affiliates from March 2018 through July 2018, Patterson falsely represented her FEMA salary to be calculated based on the Office of Personnel Management’s General Schedule (“GS”) Pay Table at GS 14 Step 10. In fact, Patterson’s salary and GS level were lower. The material misrepresentation caused her to be offered an annual salary of $160,000 plus 30% bonus.
Defendants Tribble and Ellison are facing a forfeiture allegation of the following: $1,000,000.00 contained in Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. account in the name of Donald Keith Ellison, seized on April 26, 2019; $3,425,512.93 contained in Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. account in the name of Ellison, seized on June 18, 2019; One Myco Boat Trailer; one Caterpillar Model D5K2LGP Tractor; one Caterpillar Model 320EL Hydraulic Excavator; $71,551.40 in a checking account at JP Morgan Chase, in the name of Ellison; $276,583.84 contained in a savings account at JP Morgan Chase, in the name of Ellison; $100,306.70 contained in a savings account at JP Morgan Chase, in the name of Ellison and Jakyln F. Garrett; One 2018 Invincible 40-foot catamaran; and one 2018 Ford F-150 “XL” crew cab pickup truck.
“These defendants were supposed to come to Puerto Rico to help during the recovery after the devastation suffered from Hurricane María. 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,” said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez. “All government officials are entrusted with performing their duties honestly and ethically. The charged offenses are reprehensible, more so in light of PREPA’s and Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.”
“This investigation was a top priority for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG), which dedicated significant personnel and resources over the last year to investigate the defendants and the events outlined in today’s indictment. This was a nationwide investigative effort, conducted jointly with our partners in the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. These charges send a clear message that the DHS OIG will aggressively pursue fraud committed by DHS employees and their co-conspirators. Corruption in the ranks at DHS and its components will not be tolerated,” stated Inspector General Joseph Cuffari and Special Agent in Charge of the Major Frauds and Corruption Unit, James Long.
“While there is no known cure to permanently rid society of corruption, there are certain powerful antidotes, namely, arrests and prosecutions. Thanks to our partners at the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General and the United States Attorney’s Office, swift and certain justice will be delivered to all those who would steal funds from citizens most in need,” said Douglas A. Leff, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Myriam Y. Fernández and Seth Erbe. If found guilty, the defendants are facing possible sentences of up to 5 years for conspiracy, travel act violations, conflict of interest, and false statements, up to 30 years for honest services wire fraud and disaster fraud. The charges contained in the Indictment are merely accusations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
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