Appointment of Puerto Rico secretary of State in doubt
Senate president says Pedro Pierluisi would not have his chamber’s endorsement
By Yanira Hernández Cabiya and María Miranda
SAN JUAN — Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was considering Tuesday evening naming former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi as secretary of State and send his pick to the legislature for its advice and consent so that, if confirmed, the former resident commissioner can succeed him when Rosselló officially steps down Friday at 5 p.m., sources with knowledge of the strategy say.
However, as soon as he became aware of the move, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said Pierluisi’s designation would not have his chamber’s endorsement.
For his part, House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, in an unusual move, scheduled a special session to address the appointment Friday at 1 p.m.
“The call is a precautionary measure for Friday, in case the governor withdraws his resignation or a secretary of State designation is announced,” House Vice President Javier Rodríguez Aguiló told Caribbean Business.
Political science Prof. Ángel Rosa, who is a former Popular Democratic Party (PDP) senator, explained that “the legislative chambers cannot call themselves to an extraordinary session to address legislative matters. That can only be done by the governor. The chambers must wait for this to issue the call to notify its members.”
The governor’s press office confirmed to Caribbean Business that it had not given such a call to the legislature, nor such an announcement was planned.
Rivera Schatz opposes Pierluisi because of his work as a lawyer for the island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board. Pierluisi, who served as Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in Washington, D.C., for eight years, works for the law firm O’Neill and Borges, legal advisers to the board.
According to O’Neill & Borges, where Pierluisi practices, he was on leave of absence as of Tuesday, July 30.
“Note: Attorney Pedro R. Pierluisi is on a leave of absence from the firm as of July 30, 2019,” the firm’s website reads.
Confirmation by both the House and Senate would be needed. Twenty-six representatives and 16 senators would have to vote in favor of the appointment.
However, also Tuesday, Rep. Abid Quiñones tweeted: “Appointing an ally of the Fiscal Oversight Board, @pedropierluisi, disrespects the Puerto Rican people. We will vote against it, I assure you.”
For his part, NPP Sen. Nelson Cruz also said in an interview with Radio Isla that Rivera Schatz would “block” Pierluisi’s appointment.
According to Wapa TV Channel 4, Rosselló may appoint Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz instead. New Progressive Party (NPP) Sen. Miguel Romero said he supports his chamber’s leader for the position.
The governor was expected to announce the appointment via a statement, rather than a press conference.
On Wednesday, Rosselló announced he would step down after a little more than two years in charge amid massive protests demanding his resignation, and two legal reports stating that there was sufficient grounds to begin his impeachment after messages of a chat group he had with members of his staff and advisers were leaked. The group engaged in defamatory remarks and political machinations were laid bare.
The governor lost the support of his political party, with several officials resigning. For nearly two weeks, people held demonstrations across the island—especially close to the governor’s La Fortaleza mansion, which was turned into a military stronghold—in protest, demanding his resignation.
The leaked messages exposed an already embattled administration, leading to further attacks from President Donald Trump.
“You have totally grossly incompetent leadership at the top of Puerto Rico,” Trump told reporters at the White House last week. “The leadership is corrupt and incompetent.”
Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced was next in line to succeed Rosselló as governor as the secretary of State post was left vacant by Luis Rivera Marín, who also took part in the chat group and resigned after the messages were published.
However, on Sunday, Vázquez Garced said she didn’t want to be governor and hoped Rosselló would appoint a secretary of State before Friday.
Pierluisi began his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he practiced law. After serving as Puerto Rico Justice secretary (1993-1996), he became a partner in the litigation department of O’Neill & Borges.
Pierluisi served as resident commissioner under the administration of former Gov. Luis Fortuño (2008) and was re-elected during the administration of former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla (2012), despite belonging to opposing parties.
Regarding the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stabilization Act (Promesa), which established the island’s fiscal board, Pierluisi had said in 2016 he would support the legislation if it met two principal requisites.
“First of all, the bill has to authorize a just and orderly debt restructuring process, because the alternative is a chaotic process of non-payments followed by litigation that will harm Puerto Rico, government pensioners and the bondholders, many of which are residents on the island,” Pierluisi said.
“Any objective observer, including practically all editorial boards—be they conservative, moderate and liberal from the main news outlets in the United States—understand that the government of Puerto Rico has to restructure its debts,” he added. “This would ideally [be carried out] through voluntary agreements with creditors, but with access to a process supervised by the federal court in case there are difficulties in the voluntary accords. It is sad we have had to reach this point, but it is the current reality.”
Second, Pierluisi said that it was inevitable that any federal legislation that granted Puerto Rico the faculty to restructure its debt also establish a temporary and independent supervising board to assist the commonwealth government to better manage its public finances, balance its budget, be more efficient and transparent, and regain access to financial markets.
“My requirement from day one has been that the board has to have teeth, but not fangs,” he indicated. “In other words, that it has the authority to supervise but not to order and control the government of Puerto Rico during a limited time period. I have worked with the U.S. House Speaker, Paul Ryan, and the House Natural Resources Committee Chair, Rob Bishop, to ensure that the proposal takes into consideration these conditions.”
On Tuesday, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González called on Rosselló to appoint a secretary of State “as soon as possible” to “give direction, stability and credibility” to the island.
“I have not been asked, nor consulted anything about that succession. In light of the events of the past 3 weeks, I remain focused and continue to be the face and work in Congress and with the federal agencies, while remaining aware of what is happening in my Island.”