Puerto Rico governor cuts vacation short as ex-agency heads arrested
Officials react to the indictments
SAN JUAN — As two of his former agency heads were arrested Wednesday by federal authorities, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he will be returning to the island as soon as possible.
Besides former Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration (ASES by its Spanish acronym) Director Ángela Ávila and former Education Secretary Julia Keleher, others arrested were the president of accounting and auditing firm BDO Puerto Rico, Fernando Scherrer, and his employee Alberto Velázquez. Glenda Ponce Mendoza, who worked as Keleher’s assistant, and Mayra Ponce Mendoza, the former’s sister, were also charged.
“I reiterate that our administration will not tolerate corruption and that all who betray that trust should pay with the full weight of the law,” Rosselló said in a statement issued by his office, La Fortaleza. “I also reiterate the call to collaborate with law and order agencies that are working on these cases.”
The governor said that due to the “importance and significance of the arrests that occurred today, as well as the impact on government work, I have decided to return immediately,” adding, “It is time to be present on the island and reiterate in person the message that this government’s agenda will not stop, even though some have incorrectly decided to betray the people’s trust.”
The governor will return to Puerto Rico as soon as travel arrangements are made, he said. He had travelled to France on Friday to attend the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced condemned those arrested.
“We repudiate once again these schemes that are the product of people guided by personal interests and greed. These public officials distanced themselves totally from the function of serving the people in an integral way and they turned away from the public policy of fighting corruption as they swore when they assumed their positions. There is no excuse for this type of behavior, because both the Office of the Comptroller and the Government Ethics Office educated about government processes. Clearly, from the indictment, it is clear that these people failed the people in an evident manner and with full knowledge,” said Vázquez Garced, who was serving as interim governor.
“As Secretary of Justice, we reaffirm that the Department will continue to work rigorously to fight corruption, as evidenced by the over 28 cases of corruption involving public officials and that we have investigated and referred some to OPFEI [Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor’s Panel], as well as to the federal authorities,” she added.
She did not comment about the arrests, however, saying they are “part of an ongoing investigation.”
Rosselló said that once he arrives, he will meet with legislative leaders and agency heads, both of whom urged the governor to return.
After meeting Wednesday afternoon, the legislative presidents met with several lawmakers and the secretary of Public Affairs, Anthony Maceira.
“One of the demands we made was for the governor to return to Puerto Rico, to be able to meet,” House Speaker Carlos Méndez Núñez replied to questions from the press.
The legislative leaders hope to meet with the governor on or before Friday. Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González said she would be participating in the meeting as well.
Among the topics to be discussed are the problem the arrests represent for the island to receive pending federal funds.
“We want additional controls so that what occurred today is not repeated,” Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said. “There is always room to establish additional controls.
In her news conference, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez said Rosselló was not part of the ongoing investigation, which she later replied to questions from the press did involve several municipalities as well as “new accusations” coming.
Rivera Schatz had said in a statement earlier that Wednesday’s arrests “constitute a great disappointment and provoke anger in our people.”
“The decent and honest officials who work in the government should not be penalized by those who have failed us,” Rivera Schatz said. “I acknowledge those arrested have to be presumed innocent and I feel sad for their families. I am confident that, in the end, justice and truth will prevail.”
Rivera Schatz said it was imperative that the governor, the resident commissioner, majority lawmakers and mayors affiliated with the New Progressive Party (NPP) meet immediately to evaluate and take action over “the events that are taking place.”
The Senate president said anyone found guilty must clearly explain to the people of Puerto Rico what has taken place.
“The trust that the people of Puerto Rico place on its elected officials as well as all three government branch officials should never be broken,” Méndez had said earlier.
In a statement, the interim executive director of ASES, Yolanda García, said: “We regret the situation; however, to the beneficiaries and employees, I have to tell you this process will not affect the jobs and services in ASES. Likewise, we have a greater challenge in this situation, but I guarantee that we will be tripling our efforts at the local and national level to correct this event. Finally, as we have mentioned, we have always and will continue offering total cooperation with the authorities as part of the commitment made to a healthy public administration of zero tolerance and total cooperation.”
Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez also reacted to the arrest of the department’s former head.
“All the people arrested today have the right and the presumption of innocence. At this time, we do not have information about their actions to be able to make a judgment about them. What there can be no doubt about is that we reject any practice that deviates from the law and that dishonors the vocation of public service. We reiterate the zero tolerance for corruption and as I have expressed, the Education Department is always willing to collaborate with any investigation,” Hernández Pérez said in a statement.
“It is certainly very unfortunate and undeniable the blow received to the reputation of public servants with news like today’s. It is a day to reflect on the values that should guide our work and our actions day by day,” he said, adding that there are honest officials at the department.
He also said the department will focus on improving its systems and establishing mechanisms and controls to restore trust.
Meanwhile, the president of the minority Popular Democratic Party (PDP), Aníbal José Torres, said Rosselló should be held responsible because the agency heads and contractors answered directly to him.
“Everything seems to indicate that Rosselló, his team and the New Progressive Party (NPP) believe that the electoral victories are letters of marque to keep a large slice of the services that provide services to Puerto Rican families,” he said, adding, “What good is it, governor, what is it worth, NPP, to establish anti-corruption codes or measures if government officials, from La Fortaleza, have no moral authority or sensitivity to respond or be accountable to the people for the actions of their officials? There was a person in Education, there was a person sitting at the ASES table in the negotiations designated by La Fortaleza. She responded directly to the governor [and] today [is] accused, receiving cuts of the contracts that were granted.”
—CyberNews contributed reporting.