FEMA to Further Restrict Puerto Rico’s Access to Relief Funds

Federal mistrust toward Puerto Rico amid corruption allegations hasn’t let up with the governor’s resignation.

Source: WSJ | Published on July 26, 2019

Close up coconut palms tree during heavy wind or hurricane. Rainy day

Citing the continuing leadership changes in the U.S. territory, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday it would further restrict Puerto Rico’s access to federal dollars for repairing hurricane damage.

Puerto Rico must receive approval from the agency to draw down all funds related to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, both of which hit in 2017, it said.

And Puerto Rico’s Office of Government Ethics said it has asked its attorneys to determine whether the person poised to become the next governor committed ethical violations related to Hurricane Maria relief efforts.

Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, a political appointee next in line to become governor on Aug. 2, is facing allegations she was aware of and failed to investigate irregularities in the distribution of resources following Hurricane Maria.

On Thursday, Ms. Vázquez posted a statement on Twitter. “During our time in public service, we have demonstrated that we work with integrity and honesty for the benefit of the people,” Ms. Vázquez said. “The interpretations made about these cases are false and defamatory.”

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said Ms. Vázquez declined to comment further.

Any investigation wouldn’t prevent her from becoming governor, and it wouldn’t end with her becoming governor, a spokeswoman for the ethics office said.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, a Democrat and member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said he would resign from office, effective Aug. 2. The release of nearly 900 pages of vulgar messages between him and his advisers sparked weeks of protests. The announcement, Wednesday night just before midnight, prompted celebrations outside the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, in San Juan.

By Thursday morning, most streets around the mansion had reopened to traffic and were largely cleaned up. Elsewhere in San Juan, demonstrators hoisting Puerto Rico flags shut down traffic Thursday in Hato Rey, a banking and financial hub in the capital city. Some protesters held signs demanding sweeping, systemic change.

The governorship would typically be passed to the secretary of state, but he was among several officials who recently resigned. Ms. Vázquez is next in the line of succession, and Mr. Rosselló said she would succeed him.

Ms. Vázquez said Wednesday night she would assume the governor’s office “if necessary,” leaving open the possibility that another official from the New Progressive Party could be elevated to the role.

A galvanized public is demanding a crackdown on public corruption, angered by recent indictments against two former administration officials that accused them of steering inflated government contracts to favored businesses.

“Puerto Rico needs radical transparency,” said Maricruz Tabbia, a technology entrepreneur focused on public contracting. “We have a strong opportunity to change the dynamic and extend transparency into the whole procurement process.”

Yet Ms. Vázquez or any other successor would take office without a popular mandate, raising questions about whether significant reforms are feasible in the short term. As a member of Mr. Rosselló’s party, Ms. Vázquez is closely tied to him in the minds of many residents.

“There is a lot of expectation, but change will be hard to come by,” said Anthony Tipping, an analyst at business intelligence firm WorldAware. “Puerto Rico still woke up today with a huge poverty rate. These underlying issues aren’t going away.”

Graffiti on the walls of many historic buildings around Old San Juan call for criminal investigations, total transparency and an end to the unpopular oversight board that is steering Puerto Rico through a court-supervised bankruptcy.

“They are saying enough is enough with corruption, with lies and deception,” said Eduardo Bhatia, a senator from the opposition Popular Democratic Party. “This is a new awakening that I hope it lasts forever.”