SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Puerto Rican politics were in full-blown crisis Thursday as confirmation of the nominee to succeed departing Gov. Ricardo Rossello was delayed into next week, casting doubt on who will become governor when Rossello leaves office.
Rossello, whose resignation goes into effect at 5 p.m. today in Puerto Rico, had named veteran politician and attorney Pedro Pierluisi as his successor by nominating him to the position of secretary of state, the next in line as governor under the U.S. territory's constitution.
Pierluisi is a former representative to the U.S. Congress and is seen by most Puerto Ricans as a relatively uncontroversial figure.
Rossello is leaving after two weeks of street protests by Puerto Ricans angered at corruption, mismanagement and an obscenity-laced online chat that was leaked in which Rossello and 11 other men made fun of women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria.
Pierluisi's main obstacle appeared to be Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who has said he won't vote for Rossello's nominee and wants to run for governor himself next year. Rivera Schatz is associated with Puerto Rico's political and business elite.
Shortly after the start of a Senate session Thursday, Rivera Schatz delivered a scathing attack on his critics and said the Senate would hold a hearing on Pierluisi on Monday.
Because Pierluisi has not yet been confirmed, it was not immediately clear if he would be Rossello's successor today or if the position would pass to the next in line, Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, who has already said she doesn't want the job.
"All of this will be legally analyzed," Pierluisi said after Rivera Schatz announced that a public hearing will be held Monday.
"I'll be there," Pierluisi said. "I'll have the opportunity to express myself and answer all questions. ... I offered to take a step forward for Puerto Rico at this moment given my love for my country. ... My only loyalty as governor, if I have the support of legislators, is to the people of Puerto Rico."
Rivera Schatz said Pierluisi should have the right to be heard and that if he is not approved, the constitution will be followed to find a new governor.
"Let's give him the chance to defend himself," Rivera Schatz said, adding, "I don't think I'm going to be convinced."
He criticized Pierluisi for being an attorney with the firm that represents the federal control board overseeing the island's finances, calling it "Puerto Rico's No. 1 enemy."
Meanwhile, opposition legislator Anibal Jose Torres complained that legislators with Rossello's party were meeting privately before the session began.
"It's irresponsible how they've handled this," he said. "The island is living with uncertainty."
Rossello's New Progressive Party holds majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, meaning a united party could have easily named the next governor.
Many Puerto Rican legislators were predicting that Pierluisi did not have the votes to be confirmed.
But Rep. Gabriel Rodriguez Aguilo of the New Progressive Party said that an overwhelming number of constituents had called to ask for his confirmation.
"We ran out of paper," he said in reference to secretaries taking notes on the calls.
Several lawmakers have proposed Rivera Schatz, a declared candidate for the 2020 governor's election, as their choice to replace Rossello.
Sen. Eduardo Bhatia of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, accused Rivera Schatz of trying to maneuver himself into the top job.
"This attitude of [Rivera Schatz] taking the island hostage is very dangerous," Bhatia tweeted. "'It's him or no one' is in keeping with what has been a life silencing and destroying democracy."
Some lawmakers joined Rivera Schatz in complaining about Pierluisi's work for the law firm that represents the federal control board that was created to oversee Puerto Rico's finances before the territory, saddled with more than $70 billion in public debt, declared a sort of bankruptcy. Pierluisi's brother-in-law also heads the board, which has clashed repeatedly with Rossello and other elected officials over demands for austerity measures.
"That's a serious conflict of interest," Rep. Jose Enrique Melendez said.
"The situation could not be more complicated," said Sen. Jose Antonio Vargas Vidot, who ran for Senate as an independent. "This is absurd, what we're going through. We never thought something like this could happen. In an extraordinary crisis, we have to take extraordinary measures."
Pierluisi, who took a leave of absence from the law firm, said in a statement Wednesday that much work remains to be done to recover the trust of federal authorities, U.S. Congress and the people of Puerto Rico as it also struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria.
Pierluisi served as secretary of justice for three years under Rossello's father, former Gov. Pedro Rossello. He was elected to represent Puerto Rico in Congress as its nonvoting resident commissioner and served there from 2009-17.
He was re-elected after his first term even though the governor at the time, Luis Fortuno, who was also on the ballot for the New Progressive Party, was not. That popularity made Pierluisi, who comes from a political family, an attractive candidate for governor in 2016.
But he lost the primary that year to the younger Rossello by about 10,000 votes.
As Puerto Rico grapples with a political crisis, two senior government officials said President Donald Trump's administration will place new restrictions on billions of dollars in federal disaster aid for the island.
The decision will impose new safeguards on about $8.3 billion in Housing and Urban Development disaster mitigation funding to Puerto Rico, as well as about $770 million in similar funding for the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the senior officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The administration will also move forward with plans to allow U.S. states such as Florida, Texas and California to apply for the disaster mitigation funding approved by Congress, while adding new restrictions for Puerto Rico's funding. The administration's new plan was spurred directly by requests from the president to add additional safeguards on federal aid to Puerto Rico, aides said.
The mitigation funds pay for projects on housing and other infrastructure to prepare them for future natural disasters.
The move comes after two former officials in Rossello's administration were arrested last month by the FBI on corruption charges over the misuse of federal contracts.
The scandal has prompted calls from congressional lawmakers of both parties for additional transparency measures and stricter oversight for funding approved for Puerto Rico, with a House panel recently advancing a bipartisan plan to add new safeguards to Medicaid funding for the island.
But the administration's decision is also expected to renew accusations from congressional Democrats and island residents that Trump has withheld critical aid from Puerto Rico since it was struck by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
Congress has approved $42 billion for the island's recovery, but only about $14 billion of that money has been turned over to be spent as of May, according to federal data.
The $8.3 billion in disaster mitigation funding will still go to the island, officials said, but it is unclear when. The money was approved by Congress to protect parts of the island prone to natural disasters, such as by building water pumps where flash flooding occurs, said Deepak Lamba-Nieves, research director at Puerto Rico's Center for a New Economy.
"[These] mitigation projects allow for specific areas to be protected from hazardous events," Lamba-Nieves said. "Those projects can ensure that a vast number of families in Puerto Rico are not displaced from their homes during the next hurricane, or should any other disaster event occur."
Puerto Rico has for months complained about the slow release of federal aid from the island after Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands of people and caused between $90 billion and $120 billion in damage, according to varying estimates.
A spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development declined to comment.
Information for this article was contributed by Danica Coto of The Associated Press; by Patricia Mazzei of The New York Times; and by Jeff Stein and Damian Paletta of The Washington Post.
Puerto Rican Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz sits Thursday as discussion begins on veteran politician Pedro Pierluisi’s nomination as secretary of state and successor to Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who will resign today. Rivera Schatz threw the process into doubt by setting a public hearing on the nomination Monday, days after Rossello’s resignation.
A Section on 08/02/2019
Print Headline: Objection to successor leaves Puerto Rico in doubt