By Javier Ortiz
July 23, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
Americans across the country are stunned following the release of a nearly 900-page document leaked to Puerto Rican press outlining messages exchanged between Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló and his administration. The messages, shared on the encrypted messaging service Telegram, involve Roselló’s insider dealings with lobbyists, a potential conspiracy to “set up” a federal official, allegations of withholding emergency hurricane aid and use of government money for political gain. The messages were also teeming with expletive-laced, disparaging, homophobic and misogynistic comments.
The governor’s actions and conduct engender great indignation from Americans everywhere and distract from the real troubles wrought by Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and Hurricane Maria. Roselló must resign for the good of everyone who calls Puerto Rico home – if he does not do so, then the U.S. Congress must act for him.
While the level of vitriol may come as a surprise, the implied culture of corruption should not. The leaked text messages come just days after Federal Bureau of Investigation officials arrested the island’s former education secretary, Julia Keleher, and former Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration head Angela Ávila-Marrero, as a part of a larger federal corruption investigation – prompting their resignation from their positions. The fraud charges allege misappropriation of $15.5 million in federal funding from 2017 to 2019, after Hurricane Maria. Nearly $13 million of it was spent by the Department of Education during Keleher’s tenure as secretary and $2.5 million was spent by the insurance administration under Ávila-Marrero’s watch.
Unfortunately, these are not standalone cases. They are just the latest instances of many downright corrupt actions taken by the Puerto Rican government. Hurricane Maria is an all-too-familiar reminder of the inadequate territorial government response due to the Roselló administration’s refusal to recognize the severity of the death and destruction it brought. The leaked texts touch on the government’s cavalier response to the deaths caused by the disaster, as former Chief Financial Officer Sobrino Vega jeered, “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” in a possible reference to critics.
Roselló’s response to the reasonable outrage has been anything but repentant. While other members of his administration have stepped down, Roselló has expressed he has no intentions of resigning – in spite of his people and law enforcement being deeply locked in the throngs of bitter protests involving rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas. He has pointed to asking for forgiveness as a sufficient enough effort for the public to move on. He argues that he must lift himself up and that he must “move forward to do what’s best for Puerto Rico.” In addition, he’s acknowledged that while the messages were inappropriate, he argued, they were not illegal.
“Not illegal” should not be the baseline standard Puerto Rico’s government is held to. Roselló’s administration has been operating nearly unchecked and clearly warrants more oversight.
How Congress decides to act moving forward is extremely important. Puerto Rico is the United States’ most populated insular territory – home to 3.2 million Americans. Article 4, Section 3, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution places Puerto Rico’s affairs squarely under the exclusive purview of Congress. The corruption, bigotry, alleged fraud, misappropriation of funds and all other outrages of Puerto Rico government leaders should be a direct cause for the United States to enact change when it matters most. It is incumbent upon all 535 members of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives to act immediately. The onus of the safety of Americans that call Puerto Rico home is in Congress’ hands.
Congress has the obligation to lead a process to review and reset the rebuilding Puerto Rico desperately needs. It is clear Roselló’s administration has not and does not care to advocate for its people. The people of Puerto Rico have suffered enough and they deserve, and need, better.
Javier Ortiz is a political strategist, a principal at Falcon Cyber Investments, and an adviser on public policy and regulations for a D.C.-based global law firm.
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