Sunday, November 17, 2019

Head of Puerto Rico Natural & Environmental Resources Dept. resigns amid FBI probe

By on October 31, 2019

(Screen capture of www.drna.pr.gov)

Sends letter to governor while on vacation abroad

SAN JUAN — Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced announced Thursday that Puerto Rico Natural & Environmental Resources Secretary Tania Vázquez Rivera handed in her resignation, effective Nov. 7 , amid reports that federal authorities are investigating irregularities at the commonwealth agency.

“I have just received the letter [stating] the resignation of the Natural Resources Department secretary, and it has been accepted,” the governor said just after midday during an aside with journalists as she left an event at the Puerto Rico Convention Center District.

“She has considered all of this. We don’t want this to continue being a distraction from the priorities we have in the government,” the governor responded when asked whether she had requested Vázquez Rivera’s resignation. “Following my commitment, this government will ensure sound public administration. We are grateful to Secretary Tania Vázquez for her dedication and commitment, wishing her the best of success in her future endeavors.”

According to reports, Vázquez Rivera is under investigation by the FBI for alleged irregularities involving the awarding of contracts at the island’s Natural & Environmental Resources Department (DRNA by its Spanish initials) and at the Environmental Quality Board (JCA by its Spanish initials), which she chairs.

The outgoing official reportedly acknowledged Monday that the FBI visited DRNA headquarters in Río Piedras on Oct. 11, but said the agents told her she was not the target of the investigation underway.

“The special agents indicated that they would later submit a petition of information through a subpoena, which was received in my office on Monday, October 21,” she said.

Vázquez Rivera said the DRNA submitted the requested documents Oct. 23 and that she would continue to collaborate as a “facilitator, to the extent possible,” in all required aspects of the investigation.

“Adding more information to these declarations could, somehow, hinder the probe that is being carried out. Therefore, from now on, I will not comment on this matter again,” she said.

Vázquez Rivera reportedly gave Capitol Superintendent José Jerón Muñiz Lasalle free rein to make decisions at both agencies, particularly in the awarding of contracts, even though he was neither an agency employee or a contractor. Vázquez Rivera was an attorney for Muñiz Lasalle back in 2016, according to reports, which state that she named his brother, Alex Muñiz Lasalle, as JCA administrator.

Vázquez Rivera was vacationing abroad and Gov. Vázquez said she was scheduled to return Nov. 7, the day her resignation will take effect at 5 p.m. The DRNA told a news outlet that her vacation leave had been planned beforehand and had nothing to do with her resignation.

“With so many transcendental issues for Puerto Rico, we cannot allow attention to be diverted from [our] work. [Our] aim is to continue working and ensure everyone benefits,” the governor said in a release issued Thursday by her office, La Fortaleza.

Meanwhile, Juan Cortés Valle, the president of the Workers Central Federation that represents employees of the National Parks Program, which was placed under the DRNA last year, said Thursday that Vázquez Rivera’s resignation “confirms denouncements” by the union that the entity overseeing the commonwealth’s parks, natural attractions and beaches is in disarray.

National Parks has failed to reopen many facilities since Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017, Cortés Valle said in a press release, in which he urged the governor to “put the house in order” and name officials who are committed to the upkeep of the island’s natural resources. He said Natural Parks employees “struggle every day to keep this patrimony open.”

Key tourist attractions such as the Camuy Caverns and the Mayaguez Zoo remain closed.

“This resignation confirms our arguments that [Vázquez Rivera] was never committed to the permanence of the beaches and facilities of National Parks,” he said. “Her indecision and lack of initiative in defending these facilities still constitute a risk that they fall into the hands of private interests.”

The union leader said he met at least three times with Vázquez Rivera to discuss “the urgency of the situation at [National Parks], which also affects tourism and economic development.” Given that the DRNA chief was unresponsive, he said, National Parks workers took it upon themselves to promote open facilities during the tourism high season through social media.

“Governor, it’s time you select a person who has a commitment to [preserving] natural resources, with the national parks system of Puerto Rico, so necessary for the economic development of the country, and that at the same time allows for stability in the homes of each of the families of the colleagues who have worked for years in our parks,” he said in the release. “They are the ones who take care [of the facilities] in an efficient manner, even during natural catastrophes, national bankruptcies and dire straits…for the enjoyment of our own and those who visit us.”

Former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who named Vázquez Rivera to her posts at DRNA and JCA at the beginning of his term, signed legislation last year to place JCA and the Solid Waste Management Authority under the DRNA umbrella, along with the National Parks Program, which formed part of the Sports and Recreation Department.