CEO of Puerto Rico's bankrupt power company abruptly resigns

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The CEO of Puerto Rico's bankrupt power company resigned on Wednesday just months after he was chosen to oversee its privatization as the U.S. territory struggles to restore electricity to the last of those who remain in the dark nearly 10 months after Hurricane Maria.

The resignation of Walter Higgins adds to challenges for a company that is $9 billion in debt and has seen a turnover of leaders since the Category 4 storm hit Puerto Rico.

Higgins was named CEO of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority in late March and was expected to help strengthen the power grid and supervise deals to privatize the generation of energy and award concessions for transmission and distribution.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in a statement that Higgins resigned for personal reasons, adding that the power company's board is evaluating candidates to replace him. Higgins, who previously served as president and CEO of a company whose subsidiary provided power to Bermuda, did not respond to a message for comment.

Higgins had replaced an interim director who was appointed after CEO Ricardo Ramos stepped down in November following an outcry over a $300 million contract awarded to a tiny company in Montana after Maria.

Last month, government officials questioned why Higgins awarded a $315,000 contract to a consultant without authorization from certain government agencies. They demanded an explanation and later said they were satisfied with the response from the power company's board of directors, which noted it had hired the consultant instead of filling the position for an executive sub-director of administration and finance.

Puerto Ricans also have grumbled about Higgins' $450,000 annual salary as the island struggles to emerge from an 11-year recession.

Juan Rosario, former consumer representative on the power company's board, told The Associated Press that he was not surprised about Higgins' resignation.

"The power company changes its director like people change their underwear," he said. "That contributes to this image of instability."

He said his biggest concerns are the current lack of a consumer representative on the board and that he believes the company remains a political tool of which many take advantage.

"It's a place where, despite the crisis, despite being in bankruptcy, there are billions to hand out after the hurricane," Rosario said.

A new CEO would take over the company as it crews continue restoring power to the last 1,000 or so customers who have been without power since Maria hit on Sept. 20 and destroyed up to 75 percent of transmission lines across the island.