Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Newly sworn-in Puerto Rico governor says Senate will decide his permanence

By on August 2, 2019

(Courtesy)

To ‘make sure gov’t keeps running,’ as doubts about constitutionality of takeover grip the island

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s newly sworn-in governor, Pedro Pierluisi, said we will see whether the island’s Senate “ratifies” him as governor to quell any controversy regarding his ascension to the head of the executive branch, after only the House of Representatives voted to confirm him as secretary of State as soon as now-former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned Friday at 5 p.m.

The Senate previously scheduled a special session to hold a confirmation hearing Monday and vote Wednesday. However after giving his first press conference in the governor’s La Fortaleza mansion, in which he said it would not be appropriate for him, as governor, to subject himself to a hearing, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz called all senators to show up at the Capitol Monday at 3 p.m. to resume work on the special session.

Rivera Schatz tweeted that Rosselló “never regretted anything. He did not respect the people’s demands. In fact, he mocked them, using new accomplices. Each Puerto Rican can reach their own conclusions. The mockery, the lie the unethical and illegal behavior was viral. Those who betrayed Puerto Rico want to perpetuate themselves unscrupulously. No one should lose faith. Law, order, morality and common good will prevail.”

Pierluisi said he was willing to step down if the Senate did not “ratify his incumbency,” which would make Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez governor, but said it was important to make sure that Puerto Rico was not without a governor at any moment.

“This is being done because a governor is needed, [Puerto Rico] cannot be a minute without a governor, as the Constitution is clear,” Pierluisi said, while referencing article 4, section 7 of Puerto Rico’s Constitution, which states that the secretary of State is the first in line to succeed the governor.

Controversy has arisen due to the fact that, according to the Constitution, the secretary of State, contrary to any other official except the comptroller, needs to be confirmed by both legislative bodies. On the other side of the argument, Act 7 of 1952 was amended in 2005 to provide that to discharge “the permanent exercise of the position of Governor, a Secretary must occupy his position permanently, having been ratified his appointment; except in the case of the Secretary of State.”

Some lawyers argue that Act 7 is unconstitutional, while others contend that the law refers to situations in which the substitution is temporary. 

The American Civil Liberties Union seemed poised to pursue legal action in a release saying it was concerned that the government’s separation of powers may have been threatened. Possibly pointing to the irregularity of an unconfirmed secretary of State taking over the governor’s office, the nonprofit organization argued that the Constitution’s checks and balances cannot be ignored if Democracy is to be preserved.

When asked how it was decided that he should take over, when he hadn’t been confirmed by both legislative chambers, Pierluisi said that the decision was up to him to assume the responsibility—presumably because he considered himself the immediate successor as the sworn-in secretary of State—and informed Rosselló and the Justice secretary, who has not publicly objected to the decision. During the House confirmation hearing, he was asked whether he knew who should take over after Rosselló resigned, but simply said it was a legal issue that was being evaluated.

Regarding his agenda for the next few days, Pierluisi said he would not make any cabinet appointments until he was ratified by the Senate. In the meantime, he will hold meetings with the current cabinet members and agency heads, especially the economic team that now includes Omar Marrero as the government’s chief financial officer.

Pierluisi said that one of his main priorities is “restoring the good name of Puerto Rico” and dealing with federal matters, especially the stalled federal disaster funding. His experience as the island’s representative in Congress, Pierluisi argued was one of the reasons that Rosselló named him as his successor. 

Minutes after Pierluisi was sworn in, the Justice Department issued a press release announcing that it had informed the Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor’s Panel (OPFEI by its Spanish initials) that the department would start an investigation into whether any of the content in the leaked chat group messages that led to Rosselló’s resignation constituted the commision of a crime.

When asked about said investigation, Pierluisi said, “Regarding any ongoing investigation, it needs to run its course.” Later, he added that “everything regarding corruption” needs to be handled. 

Pierluisi was sworn in at 5 p.m. by Appellate Judge Luisa Colón at his sister Caridad Pierluisi’s home. She has accompanied him in his recent appearances as secretary of State and was also sitting at the back of La Fortaleza’s Hall of Mirrors, where he gave the press conference.

Later Friday evening, protesters corralled the vehicle exit of La Fortaleza, requiring police officers to remove them for the new governor to leave the executive mansion.

“Pierluisi, culpable de la crisis,” they chanted alluding to corruption cases within the administration of Rosselló’s father, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, when Pierluisi served as Justice secretary, as well as his role as the island’s resident commissioner in Washington, D.C., when Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Stability Act (Promesa) and the board it established to address the island’s debt, for which he has provided legal counsel, among other associations perceived of developments throughout his extensive public career.

Rosselló later posted a farewell message on Instagram: “It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve our People 🇵🇷.”

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