Puerto Rico House to hold confirmation hearing for departing gov’s next-in-line

House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez (CB file)

Although sworn-in, secretary of State-designate Pierluisi may not have enough votes, says, ‘matter will be under legal review

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Méndez Núñez announced Thursday that his chamber will consider the nomination of Pedro Pierluisi as secretary of State on Friday, although he acknowledged that the two-time resident commissioner may not get enough votes to be confirmed before Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation takes effect at 5 p.m.

Pierluisi was summoned to appear before the House Government Committee at 9 a.m., which will hold a hearing at the Capitol’s Leopoldo Figueroa Room, the House leader said during an afternoon press conference at his office. The lawmaker said a committee report should be prepared by 1 p.m., when the House plans to open debate and vote on the nomination before 5 p.m.

Méndez said that if the House does not vote down the nomination, the path will be cleared for Pierluisi to succeed Rosselló as of 5:01 p.m. Friday. Were the nomination to be rejected by House lawmakers, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez would become governor and Pierluisi would remain as secretary of State-designate until the Senate votes on the matter next week, the House leader said.

Senate President Rivera Schatz said a “full committee” will consider Pierluisi’s nomination Monday at 11 a.m. so “all senators” can ask him questions. 

“There is a commitment of majority and minority lawmakers who are interested in a transparent process. This will be a decision of conscience to be made by each [House] member,” Méndez Núñez said during a press conference held after a caucus meeting of the New Progressive Party (NPP) majority in the House. He added that the lower chamber seeks to “give assurance to the people of Puerto Rico that this process was done within the time stipulated by law and within the constitution.”

“We want to exercise our constitutional duty and we will do so before 5 p.m. [Friday],” he said, noting that the chamber normally has 20 days to evaluate such a nomination.

The House leader acknowledged that the House NPP delegation remains divided over Pierluisi’s nomination. While the 26 votes needed for confirmation were not yet assured as of Thursday afternoon, the lawmaker said his colleagues were “still in the debate process.”

“There are colleagues who want to hear out Pierluisi and minority lawmakers who threatened to go to court over the right to interrogate Pierluisi. This is for the people of Puerto Rico who want transparency,” said the House leader, adding that he will base his vote on the information gleaned from Friday’s hearing and the conclusions in the committee report.

Méndez acknowledged that the House decided to consider the nomination Friday instead of Thursday as a “cautionary measure” in anticipation of the possibility that Rosselló could withdraw his resignation, which was notified on July 24. In that event, he said, the House would restart the impeachment process against the governor.

“If one of the [legislative] chambers rejects the nomination, then it ends there,” said the House leader, noting that Vázquez would be in line to be sworn in as governor.

However, he anticipated a legal morass in the event the House approves the nomination and Pierluisi goes on to become governor, only for the Senate to subsequently vote against his confirmation. He claimed that, “at first glance,” Pierluisi would be able to assume the governorship and remain in the La Fortaleza governor’s mansion with just the House votes, in “conformity with” Act 7 of 1952, which establishes the governor’s succession.

Earlier Thursday, Rivera Schatz said the Senate did not have the votes as of Thursday to confirm Pierluisi.

“There could be interpretations by lawyers who say that [Monday’s Senate vote] is not necessary, that it would be pro forma, because [Pierluisi] already became governor. There could be lawyers who question Act 7 in the courts. That’s why I prefer to act tomorrow [Friday] before five o’clock,” the House leader said when asked about the possibility Pierluisi could end up a three-day governor in such a situation.

Pierluisi, who was sworn in as secretary of State on Wednesday, seemed confident earlier Thursday that he would become the next governor in the event neither chamber votes on his nomination by 5 p.m. Friday. The Senate president said he did not foresee a constitutional crisis involving Rosselló’s successor.

“We’ll see how events develop. The president of the Senate said so,” said Pierluisi, who said his was a recess appointment. “This matter will be under legal review, and then we’ll take it from there.”

Méndez Núñez acknowledged that he and fellow lawmakers were being lobbied to support Pierluisi.

Both majority and minority lawmakers disagreed on the implications of an amendment to Act 7 enacted by former Popular Democratic Party Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá in 2005, which some legal experts have argued that in theory could allow a designated secretary of State to become governor without legislative confirmation.

The law’s amended Article 1 reads: “To [assume] 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.”

Even though his party approved the amendment, PDP House Minority Leader Rafael Hernández Montañez vowed to challenge Pierluisi becoming governor in court under such circumstances.

Nevertheless, the lawmaker acknowledged that his delegation is also divided over Pierluisi’s nomination. He declined to say how he would vote, adding that he would decide after Friday’s hearing.

“We will give [Pierluisi] due process. There are members of my delegation who are against, and in favor. We will evaluate this strictly on its merits,” the PDP leader told reporters at the Capitol. He said PDP lawmakers will grill Pierluisi on his alleged conflicts of interests involving his lobbying and legal work involving the Puerto Rico Financial Oversight & Management Board and other “big interests.”

“We also want to see if he has the same vision of austerity measures as the board,” Hernández Montañez said.

Pierluisi said he resigned Wednesday from his job as an associate with the law firm O’Neill & Borges, which represents the fiscal board.

“Now I don’t have any loyalties to the clients of that firm,” he said, noting that attorneys are ethically bound to be loyal to their clients, but as a public servant he must be loyal to the people.”