Senate confirms Rivera as Labor Secretary after grueling confirmation process
NPP lawmakers say hearings produced no evidence supporting racism allegations
SAN JUAN – After almost a week of public hearings marked by allegations of racism, the Puerto Rico Senate confirmed in an out-loud vote Thursday the appointment of attorney Carlos Rivera Santiago as secretary of the commonwealth Labor & Human Resources Department (DTRH for its Spanish initials).
The New Progressive Party (NPP) majority lawmakers voted in favor of Rivera, while opposition Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority leader Sen. Eduardo Bhatia Gautier, Puerto Rico Independence Party Sen. Juan Dalmau Ramírez, and independent Sen. José Vargas Vidot voted against. PDP Sen. Cirilo Tirado Rivera abstained from voting, according to a press release issued by the Senate.
During confirmations hearings, Rivera was accused of racism for his handling of a case in 2017 involving Alma Yariela Cruz Cruz, a public school student who was charged with assaulting another student during a brawl at a school in Carolina. At the time, the attorney served as deputy secretary of Minors and Family Affairs at the Puerto Rico Justice Department, supervising the solicitors involved in cases in juvenile court.
Cruz’s mother and her two attorneys alleged that Rivera unduly pressed on with criminal charges against the then 11-year-old special education student because she was black. The case concluded in 2018 after the mother of the alleged victim decided not to pursue the case due to the presence of media in the courtroom. Both Cruz and the victim are black.
Attorney Leo Aldridge, one of Cruz’s lawyers and who is white, acknowledged during one of the hearings this week that he did not believe that the school principal, the judges, teachers, solicitors and police who were involved in Cruz’s case were racist because none of them attempted to stop the process. The mother of the alleged victim of the case testified that she did not believe Rivera was racist and that he was only doing his job.
Rivera, who is dark-skinned, defended his role in the case, saying that he was just carrying out his duties as dictated by the law.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced nominated Rivera to the top post at DTRH on June 9, following the resignation of Briseida Torres Reyes, who left the department amid growing dissatisfaction with her handling of surging Covid-19 unemployment claims.
Before Thursday’s vote, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said that during the confirmation hearings “not one iota” of evidence was produced to prove Rivera has acted in a racist manner.
“Today after having examined all the documentation, having listened to all the parties, having evaluated all the documents, including the audio of an oral hearing in the Court of Appeals, and having heard attorney Carlos Rivera Santiago say, ‘I don’t know why they accuse me that way because I am also black,’ [and after carrying out] my duty to listen to what other colleagues [had to say that] was important, I will have to vote for him,” Rivera Schatz said, stressing that he told Rivera, “I will go after you,” if he fails.
The Senate president said that Rivera had to bear “libelous and defamatory” accusations of racism because he could not reveal the details of cases involving minors, adding that the now confirmed Labor secretary “faced the heat” and was willing to be grilled by senators.
Rivera Schatz accused minority lawmakers of relying on unsubstantiated charges of racism and “using a girl” to “advance causes” involving “unsavory aims.”
Rep. Héctor Martínez Maldonado, chairman of the Senate Appointments Committee, said that the committee report recommended Rivera’s confirmation. He said that the interviews of work colleagues of Rivera as part of the investigation into his background produced no evidence that the now Labor secretary had “racist motivations in his performance as chief of solicitors of minors.”
“Each and every one of those interviewed described the nominee as a person who is committed to his work, cooperative, respectful, earnest and responsible,” the committee report states. The report says that Rivera received the backing of attorneys Miguel Hernández Vivoni, Lizardo Mattei Román, Vanessa Sánchez Mendiola and Francisco Sánchez Rodríguez.
Martínez said that had he relied on press coverage of the issue, he would have had to “lynch” Rivera.
“I will not be anyone’s executioner, much less of the nominee..,” the Carolina senator said in statement. “That is why you have to listen to all of the parties and set aside prejudice. People have used this [issue] for political advantage.”
He added: “It would have been easy for me to lynch him because it would be politically convenient. I prefer to lose telling the truth and not to win with tricks. (…) I do not know is history will judge us or not, but I will cast this vote with the utmost justice because here is talk of discrimination and nothing of that happened.”
Senate Vice President Henry Neumann Zayas said that the controversy over Rivera’s nomination indicates the need for approval of Senate Bill 489, co-authored by Sen. Vargas Vidot, which would reform Puerto Rico’s juvenile court system. He called on fellow lawmakers to override a veto of the measure that had been cast by former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares.
“These girls went through a path of pain and suffering that is the juvenile justice system of Puerto Rico…. Everyone is trapped, they are victims of a horrible law that we have to eradicate once and for all,” the senator said in a statement. “All of this discussion is framed in what is said every day in juvenile courts throughout Puerto Rico. The media have highlighted Alma’s case, but she is one of hundreds of young people who are marked for life for having lived this experience.”