Scandal in Puerto Rico threatens chance at statehood

Puerto Rico is in political turmoil. Three weeks ago, Puerto Rico’s Treasury secretary was fired by the Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for claiming that the agency was controlled by a mafia like cabal. Ostensibly, the secretary was fired because his statement cast an unjustified shadow over the agency and its employees. This triggered a round of public accusations and investigations by the state and federal law enforcement agencies which are currently ongoing.  

Two weeks ago, the FBI arrested the local Department of Education secretary and the administrator of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration (ASES by its Spanish acronym), among others, on corruption charges, specifically with regards to the appropriation of federal funds in procurement and government contracts. More arrests are in the offing.

Immediately thereafter, an online group chat between the governor, some cabinet members and aides, private contractors and lobbyist was divulged to the public. This extensive online group chat included searing and offensive comments about many people, including misogynistic and homophobic slurs.

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The chat unveiled an unflattering side of Rosselló, which had until then been able to maintain the appearance of an honest and hard-working person. The governor has apologized for his remarks, although this does not seem to have made much of a difference. To many, the group chat showed, like the proverbial story, that the emperor has no clothes. He has publicly stated that he will not resign his position as governor.

Upon the leaking of the group chat and the immediate public outcry, the governor asked for the resignation of his secretary of State and his representative before the Financial and Management Oversight Board created by PROMESA. The resignation of the secretary of State, who ordinarily would fill the vacancy left by a resigning governor, has short-circuited the process and requires the appointment and confirmation of a new secretary of State. Under Puerto Rico’s Constitution, the secretary of Justice is the third person in order of succession, but its current occupant is politically unacceptable to many in the Legislative Assembly.

The pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) majority in the Legislative Assembly, as well as congressional Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (R-P.R.) have called for Rosselló to put aside any aspiration for reelection in 2020 and resign as president of the party.  Some legislators and party members have requested that he resign the governorship. The minority parties, the territorial Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the Independence Party (PIP) are calling for his resignation and, if need be, impeachment.

The Puerto Rico Speaker of the House announced this past Wednesday the creation of a three-member commission to study the possibility of impeachment, report be delivered within 10 days. Puerto Rico impeachment procedures require that the governor committed the crimes of treason, bribery, felony or a misdemeanor which implies moral depravity.

A plain reading of the chat in and of itself, although offensive and inexcusable, does not lead one to conclude that it rose to the level of any of these crimes. Allegations of criminal conduct require further investigation by the Puerto Rico Department of Justice, which has already asked for the mobile telephones of its participants. Most likely some will require a subpoena.   

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While all this political jockeying is occurring, thousands of citizens have taken to publicly protesting the governor’s insistence of staying in office.

Also, this past Wednesday, thousands of people — some estimates put them at 100,000 — marched to the Governor’s Mansion in Old San Juan to demand his resignation. The protest became riotous late in the night, provoking the intervention of the police. Another public demonstration has been called for July 20. 

These protests need to be seen with the larger context of the political contest in Puerto Rico, particularly with regards to the status issue. Although it is true that people of all persuasions have asked for the resignation of Rosselló, it is also clear that the protests are being politically co-opted by the territorial and pro-independence factions — here in Puerto Rico and in the mainland — which are utilizing his egregious missteps as a cudgel to oppose statehood.      

In Washington D.C, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources that has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico, has called for the resignation of Rosselló, so have Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoHouse passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans House fails to pass temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Former state House candidate says she made up story about removing 77 bullets from Pulse shooting victims MORE (D-Fla).

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (D-Mass) has expressed her solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico.  

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Rosselló ties to his Democratic Party are, to say the least, strained. Since the 2018 midterm election, current Democratic leadership in the House has been resistant to addressing Puerto Rico’s centenary political status issue.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe road not taken: Another FBI failure involving the Clintons surfaces White House denies exploring payroll tax cut to offset worsening economy Schumer joins Pelosi in opposition to post-Brexit trade deal that risks Northern Ireland accord MORE (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, and six other senators, sent a letter on July 17 to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services calling attention to the charges of public corruption and lack of transparency in Puerto Rico’s government, and questioning the levels of Medicaid funding for the island.

As Thursday, there is a $12 billion allocation in Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico to finance the governments health program for four years. Without such funding about half of the island’s population will not have medical coverage. Understandably, Congress wants controls in place to assure proper use of the funds.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' Pelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence MORE (R-Ky.) has openly rejected attending Puerto Rico’s political status in this term.

Unsurprisingly, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE has taken to Twitter to claim vindication for his criticism of Puerto Ricco’s corrupt and incompetent government and political class, including San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.    

It is evident that Rosselló has seriously eroded whatever political legitimacy he might have had, in Puerto Rico and in Washington. This erosion, more importantly, threatens to undercut the important gains statehood has achieved in recent years. 

Andrés L. Córdova is a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, where he teaches contracts and property courses. He is also an occasional columnist on legal and political issues at the Spanish daily El Vocero de Puerto Rico.