Puerto Rico’s new governor takes the helm under legal cloud

Less than three hours after being sworn in as the governor of Puerto Rico Friday afternoon, Pedro Pierluisi put his job on the line — saying he’ll allow a combative Senate to decide on Wednesday if he should stay or leave.

If the body doesn’t confirm him as the leader of the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, he says he’ll step down and allow Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez to take the top spot.

“I want to avoid a legal controversy,” Pierluisi, 60, told the press late Friday. “Now they [the Senate] will have a few days to consider what has happened.”

But it’s unclear if the gesture will appease legislators who believe he used a legal loophole to secure the job after his predecessor, Ricardo Rosselló, was forced out of office amid unprecedented public protests. After Pierluisi made the announcement, the Senate said in a statement it would convene on Monday to cast the deciding votes.

Pierluisi’s risky gambit means that Puerto Rico — battered by a debt crisis and still recovering from a devastating hurricane in 2017 — will also have to deal with political uncertainty.

Just minutes before former Gov. Rosselló stepped down at 5 p.m. Friday, it was still unclear who would take his spot.

Pierluisi had been appointed as secretary of state, and therefore the first in line of succession, on Wednesday, but hadn’t been approved by both chambers of the Puerto Rican legislature, as required by the constitution.

On Friday, the House narrowly gave him the green light, 26-21, but the Senate had said it wouldn’t take up the issue until next week.

Even so, Rosselló handed power to Pierluisi arguing that a 1952 law — amended in 2005 — gave him the right to do so.

Pierluisi acknowledged that the law — never used and therefore unchallenged in Puerto Rico’s history — was up for debate. But he said that if the Senate ratified him, it would shut down any legal challenges and allow the country to move on.

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz had suggested that Pierluisi didn’t have enough votes to be ratified as secretary of state, but that dynamic may have changed since he became governor.

Even so, Rivera Schatz blasted Rosselló on Twitter for the way he handled the transfer of power.

“He never regretted anything. He never respected the demands of the people,” he said of the outgoing governor. “Those who betrayed Puerto Rico want to unscrupulously perpetuate themselves [in power].”

And Puerto Rico’s Colegio de Abogados — the island’s preeminent legal association — said that swearing in Pierluisi as governor without his having gone through the entire confirmation process was “a terrible act” tantamount to “holding the constitution hostage” and that it “should be corrected by the prompt attention of the Puerto Rican Supreme Court.”

As flag-waving and jeering protesters packed the streets around the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, it wasn’t clear until the last minute who would be sworn in as the new governor. And there was no public ceremony to mark the event, as heavily armed police kept the crowds at bay.

Standing outside the legislature earlier in the day, Carmen Vega, a 53-year-old Army veteran, was yelling at lawmakers who crossed her path. “We’re watching you! We’re watching you!” she screamed.

Vega said she, like much of the nation, had been shocked by the corruption allegations surrounding Rosselló’s Cabinet and the profane, misogynistic and tasteless messages he shared in a private group chat with some of his closest advisers, which were leaked to the press starting July 11.

While Vega was cheering Rosselló’s downfall she said she was willing to give Pierluisi the benefit of the doubt.

“I’m sure he’s not a saint,” she said. “But he has the credibility we need right now.”

In particular, she said Pierluisi’s eight years as resident commissioner in Washington, D.C., means he has the contacts on Capitol Hill to make sure funds and aid keep flowing to the island, which is still recovering from Hurricane Maria in 2017.

But she said the crowds that gathered last month and forced Rosselló to resign would keep Pierluisi on a tight leash.

“We got rid of one and we’ll keep watching,” she said. “If I see the same corruption, if I see that it’s business as usual, I will be the first one protesting.”

Pierluisi said he knew the island was angry about corruption allegations but he also said democracy needed to be defended at the ballot box in 2020, when a new election for governor will be held.

“I urge the people, including those who went out to the demonstrations, to exercise the right to vote,”’ he said. “[But] they can continue to express themselves peacefully and I will listen.”

Pierluisi started off the day being grilled by a House committee in an often heated session. And his prospects looked dark when House leader Carlos “Johnny” Méndez said he would vote against him, saying there were “too many questions” about his past to rush the process.

In particular, Méndez said he and his colleagues had been under the impression that in his role as a lawyer, Pierluisi had tried to stop an investigation into a development project planned for the former Roosevelt Roads naval base.

Representatives were also concerned that Pierluisi’s law firm had provided legal advice to the Fiscal Oversight Board, the federal body that controls the island’s shattered finances. Méndez said the creation of that board by Congress under the 2016 PROMESA law was the maximum expression of “Puerto Rico’s colonial status.”

Pierluisi pushed back, saying his legal work for the oversight board, known in Puerto Rico as the junta, could be an asset to the territory.

“I understand the PROMESA law inside and out, I understand its reach, and how to take advantage of its benefits and how to fight its excesses,” he told the congressional committee. “Who better than me to represent our people before the junta? Who better than me to start the process so that the junta leaves? That’s what we all want. My past representing the Fiscal Oversight Board does not represent a conflict of interest in this new position.”

Pierluisi served as secretary of justice from 1993 to 1997 and was the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico in Washington, D.C., from 2009 to 2017, before going into private practice.

One of Pierluisi’s primary tasks as governor could be how he handles any future corruption investigations into the former governor. On Friday, Pierluisi told legislators that he’d neither been asked, nor had he contemplated, giving Rosselló a pardon.

Hours later, the Puerto Rico Department of Justice said it would be investigating Rosselló’s chats to see if, along with being lewd, they also represented a crime.

Pierluisi said he knows he needs to tread carefully over the next few days — that the Senate needs the chance to be heard. And he also acknowledged that he may go down in history as holding the island’s briefest governorship.

“That could happen,” he said about losing his job on Wednesday. “It could be very short lived. I hope not, because I’m ready, willing and I feel capable.”

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