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Who is Puerto Rico’s next governor? The answer might lead to a constitutional crisis

The final scandal-plagued weeks of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and the near-midnight announcement on July 24 that he would resign, gave many Puerto Ricans the sense that they could soon close a chapter of unprecedented political turmoil.

Not quite.

On Friday morning, just hours before Rosselló is set to leave the island’s highest office at 5 p.m., Puerto Ricans won’t know who their next governor will be. And some experts on the island say that what its House of Representatives decides on Friday could potentially pave the way for a constitutional crisis in Puerto Rico.

The unfolding political drama of who will become Puerto Rico’s next governor has been clouded in uncertainty over the past few days, as legislators of Rosselló’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party rushed to meet behind closed doors and rumors swirled that a schism was emerging among members of the ruling party.

According to the Puerto Rican constitution, the person next in line to become governor is the secretary of state, a position that has remained vacant since the leak of a profane chat among government officials led to the resignation of former secretary Luis Rivera Marin. On Wednesday, Rosselló nominated his former primary opponent in 2016, Pedro Pierluisi, as secretary of state and he was sworn in later that day, awaiting his confirmation in the legislature.

On Thursday, during an extraordinary legislative session called by Rosselló to exclusively decide on the confirmation of Pierluisi, legislators opted to delay the vote. Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz assured other lawmakers and the media that Pierluisi does not have enough votes to be confirmed as secretary of state, and scheduled a hearing on Monday, while the House of Representatives agreed to hold a hearing and vote on Friday before 5 p.m.

If Pierluisi is not confirmed by the House on Friday, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez would become governor. Vázquez, who is second in line to replace Rosselló, said initially that she was not interested in the job, but she has since said she will assume the role.

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Pedro Pierluisi, who has been nominated to be Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State, arrives at the Senate with his sister Caridad Pierluisi, his spokesperson, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. Puerto Rican politics were in full-blown crisis as confirmation of Pierluisi, who would succeed departing Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, was delayed into next week, casting doubt over who will become governor when Rosselló leaves office. Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo AP

But if Pierluisi is confirmed as secretary of state by only one chamber, he could still choose to be sworn in as governor as soon as Rosselló leaves office. He can do this, experts say, by leaning on a disputed 2005 amendment to the order of succession that suggests Pierluisi could take up the role without the Senate’s approval. Other lawyers believe such a succession would be unconstitutional.

“The first thing [Rosselló] did was name him [while the legislature was] in recess. He was named in recess during a time when the chambers were not in session,” so he could not be immediately approved, said constitutional lawyer José Julián Alvarez González. “If Pierluisi hangs on to that language ... it is conceivable that he can be sworn in as governor starting at 5 p.m.”

However, Alvarez said that the Puerto Rican constitution clearly says a secretary of state nominee has to be confirmed by both chambers. The issue has already led some leaders of the minority Popular Democratic Party to say they plan to take the issue to the island’s Supreme Court if Pierluisi is sworn in as governor.

It is also conceivable, Alvarez added, that Rosselló will decide to withdraw his resignation, following nearly two weeks of ongoing protests that brought him down. The leader of the House of Representatives, Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, said that if this happened, the chamber would resume an impeachment process.

Alternatively, if Vázquez is sworn in as governor, she can choose to nominate another secretary of state.

“It would be a constitutional chaos,” Alvarez said.

Kenneth McClintock, a former secretary of state and former president of the Senate, had been mentioned as a potential successor to Rosselló.

Now an adviser with the San Juan-based consulting group, Politank, he said the country has grown weary of protests and upheaval and will likely give the new governor the benefit of the doubt.

“Starting Friday, it won’t matter who’s been selected, there will be a lot of people who will give them a chance to prove himself or herself,” he predicted. “Of course, there will always be a minority that is going to continue the fight.”

He also said the last two weeks — where massive crowds forced Rosselló out of office — are a testament to the island’s democracy.

“If something is going to remain clear for Puerto Rico’s historians, it’s that we have a constitution that functions and protected freedom of speech and freedom of association,” he said. “These were peaceful protests that forced a governor to resign and forced a change of leadership without a single drop of blood being spilled.”

However the new leadership question is resolved, there’s likely more trouble brewing. There have been a spate of corruption-related arrests in recent months and there are persistent rumors that more are in the works.

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Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Carlos Giusti AP

Among the most pervasive is that an investigation into no-show contracts in Puerto Rico’s congress might not be over. In May, the FBI arrested three people, including the executive director of government affairs in Puerto Rico’s Senate, Ángel Figueroa.

At the time, FBI Special Agent Douglas Leff suggested that case is just getting started.

“It is now open season on apprehending all those responsible for this corrupt scheme to defraud the people of Puerto Rico,” Leff said in May. “Those who perpetrated the scheme, as well as their family and friends who benefited from it, can either cooperate quickly or they will receive one last gratuity from the federal government: A free ride in the back seat of an FBI squad car.”

Pedro Reina Pérez, a political analyst and professor at the University of Puerto Rico, said the scandal could eventually implicate Senate President Rivera Schatz — who was also a contender for the governor’s post.

“We don’t know which way the ball is going to bounce, but I think another round of FBI arrests is imminent,” Reina Pérez said. “And if it doesn’t include the president of the Senate, it could touch people who are close to him.”

Rivera Schatz has always maintained his innocence and said the scandal was limited to a few bad actors. And there have been no indications that he’s under investigation.

But the legal trouble could be one of the reasons that he’s been angling for the governor’s seat, Reina Pérez said.

That spot “would be very convenient for Rivera Schatz, because it would offer him some protection,” he said. “There are a lot of people trying to cover their backside.”

Although Rivera Schatz and Rosselló are both members of the ruling New Progressive Party, the powerful legislator has emerged as one of Rosselló’s fiercest critics, and there were fears he might try to derail the nomination of Pierluisi.

“The great opposition to Rosselló didn’t come from the opposition [PPD] party,” Reina Pérez said. “His biggest opposition came from the president of the Senate.”

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