The corruption doesn’t directly involve Hurricane Maria relief funds, but the FBI’s arrests will certainly raise suspicions anyway. The Department of Justice charged six people, including two former Puerto Rican government officials, for financial and political corruption. The probe started with an inspector general’s suspicions about how education funding was being spent:
The FBI on Wednesday arrested two former senior officials who served in the administration of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, leading the chairman of the House committee that oversees Puerto Rico to call for the governor to step down. …
Six people were charged in the 32-count indictment. They include Julia Keleher, who served as Puerto Rico’s education secretary until April, and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, who was the executive director of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration until late June.
“Keleher and Avila-Marrero exploited their government positions and fraudulently awarded contracts funded with federal monies,” U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Vélez said in a statement. “The charged offenses are reprehensible, more so in light of Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.”
Prosecutors said Rosselló was not involved in the investigation, according to the Associated Press. The governor said on Twitter he had cut short a vacation to return to the island.
Rosselló has been advocating for more disaster relief, and Congress did finally expand the fund for recovery just last month. The funding got held up in part because a number of questions arose about how the previous funding had been spent, and Rosselló insisted that the government was a reliable partner in preventing fraud and mismanagement. On the heels of the arrests, however, the Democratic chair of the Natural Resources Committee demanded Rosselló’s resignation:
CHair @RepRaulGrijalva is calling for Gov. Rossello of Puerto Rico to step down given multiple arrests in a corruption probe. The @washingtonpost story is accurate, despite some confusion. https://t.co/sVAwGRGlvs
— Natural Resources Committee (@NRDems) July 10, 2019
As CBS’ David Begnaud tells the panel, Grijalva’s demand is a very big deal. Rosselló had acquired some political cover from Democrats in their haste to make Donald Trump the villain in Puerto Rico’s woes ever since Hurricane Maria. The FBI’s corruption arrests tend to make Trump’s suspicions about relief funds more credible, though, and that makes Rosselló a liability:
It doesn’t help that this is the second major corruption probe unveiled in Puerto Rico in the past month, which wasn’t exactly the first either:
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello asked for the immediate resignation of Treasury Secretary Raul Maldonado just hours after the cabinet member disclosed a federal corruption investigation into his own department.
Rossello said at a Monday news conference that he’d never been informed of the “serious irregularities” that Maldonado made public. The governor didn’t divulge details about the allegations, which he said are “grave and could represent serious violations of the law.” …
The moves came after Maldonado told the WKAQ-580 radio station that he was collaborating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation as it looked into influence peddling, destruction of documents and other crimes within his own department. Maldonado suggested in the interview that the blame fell on an “institutional mafia” within his department composed of “officials who have been with the department for many years.”
And just a month before that …
Last month, Rossello said he “would not tolerate or be an accomplice to any act of corruption” following the FBI’s arrest of the director of the Senate Office of Government Affairs and two contractors for billing for services that were never completed.
In the aftermath of the Hurricane Maria, the island’s energy authority, Prepa, gave the job of resurrecting the devastated electrical grid via a $300 million no-bid contract to Whitefish Energy, a Montana company with two full-time employees. The contract was eventually canceled and Prepa’s head resigned.
At least thus far, the corruption hasn’t touched Rosselló directly. However, it’s getting pretty clear that the Puerto Rico government has serious integrity issues, and at the very least Rosselló doesn’t appear to be part of the solution.
All of which leads to an obvious question: are we sure that relief funds have been spent properly? This sequence of investigations and arrests leave a distinct impression that the chances of a yes to that question would be somewhere between slim and none. We have a $91 billion investment in that recovery effort, which until now has mainly been demanded on the basis of Rosselló’s supposed competence and skilled management. Even though this bout of corruption has nothing directly to do with relief funding, it would behoove Congress to ramp up efforts to account for where those funds have gone and will go.
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