According to PREPA, of the 46 family members recruited, 41 were still working until July 3. (GFR Media)

During the first weeks following Hurricanes Irma and María, the Electric Power Authority (PREPA) hired 264 emergency employees, of whom 17 percent have some relationship with personnel of the public corporation.

Specifically, PREPA recruited 46 workers who are, in turn, children, siblings, uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law or sons-in-law of regular employees, both union members and administrative workers.

At least two of the emergency employees, identified as Richard Alexis Torres González and Edgar Joel Torres González, are nephews of Justo L. González Torres, former interim Executive Director of PREPA.

Another employee, identified as Carlos Gustavo Ortiz Ríos, is the nephew of William Ríos Mena, former Director of Generation of PREPA.

The rest of the workers are relatives of clerks, assistants, auxiliary line technicians, heavy equipment and power station operators, guards and supervisors, among other positions, according to the authorization of the Office of Government Ethics, signed on June 5 by its Executive Director, Zulma R. Rosario Vega.

"We have carefully evaluated the exceptional circumstances for which emergency personnel was hired, and taking into consideration the emergency situation in the power system caused by hurricanes Irma and María, we authorized, retroactively and exceptionally, hiring these people", establishes the document, of which El Nuevo Día obtained a copy.

Legal framework

By press time, no PREPA official was available for interview.

Through written statements, the public corporation stated that, during the period following Hurricanes Irma and María, it had "the need to recruit resources to address imminent needs caused by the devastation."

It was added that the recruitment was made in accordance with its internal processes for emergency hiring and with Executive Order 2017-053, signed on September 28 by Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares.

With this executive order -and under article 15 of Law 211-1999-, Rosselló Nevares exempted contractors and any agency, instrumentality, public corporation or entity attached to the Executive Branch from complying with any applicable requirement imposed by law, regulation, administrative order or directive that regulates the government hiring process.

On December 8, the Governor signed Executive Order 2017-072, which overruled the flexibility in recruitment after the hurricanes, under the premise that "many services offered by certain agencies and private entities have begun to be provided normally."

Rosselló Neveras gave the agencies 90 days to request, obtain or supplement the documents or comply with any requirement applicable to the continuity of contracted services.

PREPA assured that it "completed the contracting procedures" with the pertinent agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Government Ethics.

Diverse positions

The 46 relatives of PREPA employees were hired to fill these positions: unskilled worker (34), buildings and land special general worker (8), buildings and land general worker (1), relay and instrumentation technician (2) and equipment operator to purify insulating oil (1).

In its written statements, the public corporation did not specify the functions of each position or the amount of the contracts.

PREPA also failed to answer why it was necessary to recruit relatives of employees or whether there were other people capable of performing the same tasks.

"In the absence of communications during the first weeks after the passage of the hurricanes and due to the urgent need to clean the irrigation channels to avoid an additional overflow, the administrators and supervisors of these areas, with the permission of the administration, proceeded to identify the emergency personnel needed. Once there was vehicular access to these areas, the staff of PREPA’s central offices was mobilized to complete the hiring process for emergency employees," said PREPA.

Two warnings

According to PREPA, of the 46 family members recruited, 41 were still working until July 3.

The public corporation did not offer the names of the five employees who are no longer in service. It only specified that the workers were hired for time periods of 90 days, six months and one year.

In her authorization, Rosario Vega warned the Director and Chief Executive Officer of PREPA, Walter M. Higgins, that the Organic Law of the Office of Government Ethics (Law 1-2012) "establishes a prohibition against nepotism."

Therefore, she pointed out that, if PREPA is interested in renewing or modifying the contracts, "it must go again and beforehand" before the agency for the corresponding evaluation.

Rosario Vega also warned that her authorization does not judge the suitability of the 46 contracts "in light of the budgetary administration rules of PREPA", as well as other applications of internal organizational aspects that have to be considered.

"This authorization is based strictly on the particular facts submitted to our consideration, and does not extend to facts or elements that were not informed," she stressed.

PREPA informed that the work of the emergency personnel will be extended "only until the period agreed with each employee is over" and is approved by the agencies. "When their hiring terms expire, these personnel will be separated from the job," she said.

"Not recommended"

According to the Professor of the Graduate School of Public Administration of the University of Puerto Rico, Víctor Rivera Hernández, hiring family members in the government is a "non-recommended practice that could fail to meet ethical standards."

"Taken a bit further, it could be part of acts of administrative corruption," said Rivera Hernandez, noting that executives, managers, supervisors and even union members should avoid situations such as the one reported in PREPA after the Hurricanes.

In his opinion, although there are executive orders that make hiring and the authorizations of the Office of Government Ethics more flexible, "one must always be very careful and circumspect" when hiring people or companies during emergencies.

Rivera Hernandez warned that, during emergencies, personnel could be brought under two scenarios: contracts per se (with start and end dates) and contracts for vacant positions.

"If it were a mere contract, the important thing is that, once the emergency is over, the documentation and the requirements that are needed to sign it are validated. However, if they were contracts to fill vacancies within PREPA, it is a dangerous practice, that could be illegal, and that goes against an ordinary recruitment process in a public corporation," he said.

"There is a cardinal principle that positions cannot be filled with contractors. Contracts are for assignments that are not designed for a position," he added.

Rivera Hernández argued that PREPA should have replaced the need for employees after the hurricanes with "the available candidates" that it is supposed to have -as all public corporations-, either for emergencies or because they are difficult to recruit.

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