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 SotoActivists, analysts demand Congress consider immigrants in coronavirus package Hispanic Democrats demand funding for multilingual coronavirus messaging Hispanic Democrats see Sanders's Latino strategy as road map for Biden MORE (D-Fla).

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPentagon charts its own course on COVID-19, risking Trump's ire Warren to host high-dollar fundraiser for Biden It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 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 GrassleyGOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill State Department scrutiny threatens Pompeo's political ambitions Senators offer bill to prevent relief payments from being seized by private debt collectors 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Democratic leaders say Trump testing strategy is 'to deny the truth' about lack of supplies MORE (R-Ky.) has openly rejected attending Puerto Rico’s political status in this term.

Unsurprisingly, President TrumpDonald John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 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.