Amid arrests of island officials, Puerto Rico governor apologizes for scandal of his own

Thousands demand resignation of Puerto Rico governor after private chats leaked

Thousands of protesters choked the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 15, to demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello. The protests were incited by leaked chat logs including the governor.
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Thousands of protesters choked the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 15, to demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello. The protests were incited by leaked chat logs including the governor.

Amid an ongoing scandal of corruption plaguing his administration, the governor of Puerto Rico said Thursday he would not resign despite calls for his ouster. Federal agents had indicted six former government officials and consultants accused of crimes that include wire fraud and money laundering.

“I am ashamed to have to hear the allegations that have been made against former public officials. It’s simply unacceptable and unprecedented what our people have endured,” Ricardo Rosselló said inside the governor’s Fortaleza mansion on Thursday night, as a group of protesters assembled outside and called for the governor to step down. “I will not resign. I am working for Puerto Rico.”

At the news conference in San Juan, Rosselló began by apologizing for a series of private messages that were leaked by a local journalist and showed screenshots of a chat he said he shared with at least eight other members of his staff. Among the messages, Rosselló, a Democrat, called Latino Victory Fund president Melissa Mark-Viverito a “whore” after she criticized DNC Chairman Tom Perez in a tweet.

“I want to begin by saying sorry for the statements I’ve written in a private chat.. I’ve lived through days of a lot of intensity, of a lot of work with many pressures,” Rosselló said. “I used this chat to release tensions built up from 18-hour days, sometimes with no day off. ... None of this justifies the words I’ve written.”

Mark-Viverito is an ally and friend of Rosselló’s political foe, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who is co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign for president.

Cruz reacted to the leaked messages, calling the governor and his staff “a gang of charlatans, homophic, hypocrites, machistas.”

Mark-Viverito said in a statement anyone who “uses that language against a woman, whether they are a public figure or not, should not govern Puerto Rico.”

“Yes, I say bad words, and yes, I send memes and yes, I make sarcastic comments,” Rosselló said. “And the truth is I don’t feel proud of that.”

The governor, who is also president of the island’s party that is in favor of statehood, was on a cruise with his family in Europe when reports first surfaced that the FBI had arrested six people, including former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. Also detained by federal agents were Ángela Ávila Marrero, former director of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration, and Alberto Velázquez Piñol, an executive at BDO Puerto Rico, an auditing firm that until recently worked closely with the government.

“It is alleged that the defendants participated in a public corruption campaign and benefited at the expense of Puerto Rican citizens and students,” said Neil Sánchez, special agent in charge of the South Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education. “This is particularly scandalous.”

But the Puerto Rican governor distanced himself from the allegations and said he would feel betrayed, if the allegations were true.

“It is outrageous. If these accusations prove to be true, they failed the people of Puerto Rico and they failed me,” he said.

Rosselló’s statements also come a day after Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, called for the governor to resign. Grijalva is the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee in the House of Representatives, which is in part responsible for issues concerning the U.S. territories.

Florida officials, including Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, reacted to the news of the arrests. They have come at a time when the Puerto Rican government is still negotiating the speedy disbursement of federal disaster aid after Hurricane Maria and Medicaid funds.

President Donald Trump has previously justified restricting disaster funding for Puerto Rico, blaming corruption within the Puerto Rican government for “taking dollars away” from other states.

“Senator Scott believes that anyone who breaks the law should be held accountable,” said the senator’s spokesman Chris Hartline in a statement to the Miami Herald. He added that Scott supported “appropriate oversight and auditing authority remain in place to prevent waste, fraud, or abuse” of funding in Puerto Rico.

“We have to make sure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely,” he said.

Rubio said he was “very concerned” about the corruption scandal in Rosselló’s administration. “We will do all we can to make sure the people of Puerto Rico are not punished for the wrongdoing of corrupt government officials.”

Rosselló stressed that the scandals would not affect his reelection campaign and his government would meet in the following days to come up with legislative proposals to end corruption.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I have the same strength and the same commitment to work hard with our people.”

Bianca Padró Ocasio is a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald. She has been a Florida journalist for several years, covering everything from crime and courts to hurricanes and politics. Her bilingual work telling the stories of the Puerto Rican community in Central Florida has been previously recognized by the Florida Society of News Editors and the Florida Sunshine State Awards.