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Head of Puerto Rico’s electric utility resigns amid questions about slow repairs in hurricane’s wake

The majority of Puerto Rico is still without power. Governor Rossello says his "main focus is to restore the energy grid" (Video: Reuters)

The executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority resigned Friday amid questions about the slow repairs more than eight weeks after Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the electrical grid.

PREPA head Ricardo Ramos Rodríguez had come under close questioning about a $300 million contract the utility signed with the tiny Whitefish Energy firm instead of turning to larger, more experienced networks of utilities that traditionally rush to aid storm-ravaged areas. The Whitefish Energy contract, whose rates were substantially higher than those paid to others, was later canceled.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced the resignation, saying Ramos’s tenure in office had become “unsustainable.”

“The executive director is a professional. He has worked hard to restore the system in Puerto Rico but understands that this is a context that has greatly distracted from what could be recovery,” Rosselló told reporters.

The governor said that he was recommending that the PREPA board of directors name Justo González, a career employee who began his career with the authority in 1989, as interim director. During the news conference, the governor expressed frustration with the pace of power restoration to Puerto Rican households and businesses.

“We have faced a number of obstacles,” Rosselló said. “But I expect an effective transition.”

In recent weeks, Ramos had defended his decisions, saying that Whitefish had volunteered its services and had experience in rugged terrain like that in much of the commonwealth.

The ability of PREPA to manage money and contracts has also drawn attention from Congress, which is worried about how billions of dollars of recovery money might be handled.

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Hours before tendering his resignation, Ramos appeared in a video on the PREPA Facebook page, explaining the cause of two major power outages this week that plunged large swaths of the San Juan metropolitan area back into darkness. The system has suffered a series of outages and weather challenges that have delayed the restoration of transmission and distribution lines.

Ramos also came under scrutiny after news outlet El Vocero reported that, during the post-hurricane emergency, Ramos had hired his friend Pedro Juan Morales-González, a lawyer and engineer. Rosselló said that contract would also be canceled.

According to the local newspaper, El Vocero, Ramos hired the law firm of his friend Morales-González to work for PREPA. Morales-González’s name came up in the charging documents in the 2011 public corruption case of a former Puerto Rico senator alleging he sold a judicial seat. Morales-González was not charged with corruption.

As the governor became aware of all this Friday morning, he ordered an investigation and canceled PREPA’s contract with the Morales-González law firm.

Ramos addressed the newspaper’s story in the Facebook video saying that “absolutely nothing was done outside the law” with regards to the $100,000 legal services contract. He said the agency solicited bids to retain local law firms to assist with legal matters that may result from the employee layoffs at PREPA. The firm has not been paid a cent, Ramos said.

The disarray at the top of PREPA dealt a new blow to Puerto Ricans, more than half of whom remain without electricity. The storm damage has imposed costly repair burdens on a utility that was already struggling with more than $9 billion in debt, poor service and sky-high rates more than twice the national average.

Even before it was hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria, PREPA said it needed more than $4 billion to overhaul its outdated power plants and reduce its heavy reliance on imported oil.

But the hurricanes have exposed transmission problems, too. PREPA has 2,478 miles of transmission lines from its power plants and 31,485 miles of distribution lines, which carry electricity shorter distances from the grid to customers.