Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Wanda Vázquez is sworn-in as Puerto Rico’s governor

By on August 7, 2019

Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez is sworn-in as Puerto Rico’s governor. (CyberNews)

She is the second woman head of government in the island’s history

SAN JUAN — Wanda Vázquez, 59, was sworn in late Wednesday, becoming the second woman governor of Puerto Rico, after the island’s highest court ruled unanimously that Pedro Pierluisi’s swearing-in Friday was unconstitutional.

Vázquez, who had been serving as Justice secretary, took the oath of office from Puerto Rico Supreme Court Chief Justice Maite Oronoz at a ceremony held at the headquarters of the island’s highest court in San Juan. Social media was abuzz with comments about Vázquez not having placed her hand on a Bible while taking the oath, as have other governors.

The new governor, who was accompanied by her husband, Judge Jorge Díaz Reverón, and her daughter, Beatriz Díaz Vázquez, did not make declarations to the press after the ceremony. Her tenure is until the 2020 elections.

For weeks, the now-governor limited her public remarks to statements issued through the Justice Department’s press office.

“This afternoon, I have taken the oath as Governor of Puerto Rico, as established by the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, as established by the succession order…in Article IV, Section 7, and Law 7 of July 24, 1952, as amended, known as the Law Providing for the Order of Succession and Substitution for the Post of Governor,” Vázquez said in a statement Wednesday.

“I arrived at this position by constitutional provision and by a legal ruling, but with the greatest respect and determination to serve my people and to push Puerto Rico forward,” she added.

Although in her statement, Vázquez indicates she took the office because “the position of the Secretary of State is vacant,” in its decision, the Supreme Court established that Pierluisi remains secretary of State as a recess appointment. His nomination was confirmed by the House of Representatives but the Senate did not vote on it, allegedly for not having enough votes and that Pierluisi had not sent the required documents.

“It is with great humility and commitment that I assume the position to direct the destinies of our country, with responsibility and commitment. I will continue to focus on getting the path of our people back on track in an orderly and peaceful way,” she concluded.

She later echoed those words in a televised speech, adding as a jurist, she never sought public office but will take the “step forward without any interest other than serving the people as I have done all my life. I accept the duty, with the highest sense of responsibility and social awareness.”

(Screen capture)

“I assure you that I will put all my energy and my heart to put Puerto Rico on track toward a productive society where the stability that we all yearn for is achieved. I ask the People not to lose faith in people and their abilities. You have already demonstrated your resilience and courage in the face of great challenges. I am convinced that by uniting those wills we can straighten the course and achieve the much-desired stability and progress that the people deserve and expect,” she concluded.

The court declared unconstitutional a 2005 amendment to Act 7 of 1952, allowing a secretary of state that is appointed during a legislative recess to become governor without the need to be confirmed by both chambers of the commonwealth’s Legislature. Pierluisi, who had been appointed secretary of State by former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, took over the governor’s office Friday at 5:01 p.m. based on that amendment, even though he had only been confirmed as secretary of State by the House of Representatives the same day.

Vázquez was appointed Puerto Rico attorney general in January 2017 after serving as prosecutor with the Department of Justice in the domestic violence division, for 20 years.

She directed the Women’s Advocate Office as well. During her tenure, irregularities were pointed out in the handling of the February 2012 gender violence investigation into Héctor Ferrer Ríos, the Popular Democratic Party’s mayoral candidate for San Juan at the time. The now-deceased politician accused her of fabricating the case but never pursued his allegation legally.

As a prosecutor, she hired as an adviser Valerie Rodríguez Erazo—the wife of Elías Sánchez, Rosselló’s campaign manager and on–time representative the the island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board.

Her time as Justice secretary has not been without controversy. She submitted to the Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor’s Panel (OPFEI by its Spanish initials) a recommendation for the activation of multiple prosecutors for a leaked WhatsApp chat group scandal, but OPFEI only appointed a prosecutor for the former president of the State Elections Commission, Rafael Ramos Sáenz, and opened an “investigation” against her.

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz asked her to resign in November 2017, when OPFEI announced it would level three charges for violations of the Government Ethics Law and the Criminal Code for her alleged undue intervention in a case in which her daughter and son-in-law were victims of a home-invasion robbery. However, Judge Yazdel Ramos Colón exonerated her of having committed any ethical violations due to insufficient evidence. 

Vázquez has also been alleged to not have begun investigations involving relatives of Rosselló.

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González congratulated the new governor “for assuming her new post, thus becoming the second woman governor in the history of Puerto Rico. As a woman, I am proud of that.

The congresswoman said she was “available to collaborate in everything that Governor Vázquez needs to assume the difficult work and…responsibilities of the office she has just sworn to. As I said publicly weeks ago, she can count on all my experience and support in the Federal Capital and in Puerto Rico.

“I made that offer not only from the most faithful adherence to our constitutional order, but also from the patriotic sense that must link all Puerto Ricans to work together to achieve our goals as a people.

“The success of Wanda Vázquez as governor must also be the success of Puerto Ricans. I am sure that the presidents of both bodies of the Legislative Assembly will make similar offers that are consistent with the proper separation between the branches of government.”

Pierluisi issued a statement, saying he had taken the step to assume the governor’s office “to help my Island with the utmost good faith and intent to contribute to the future of Puerto Rico,” doing “so on the basis of the express language of the Constitution of Puerto Rico and the applicable law at that time….” 

Pierluisi stressed that “we must all unite for Puerto Rico, leaving behind any partisan, ideological or personal agendas…until our people have the opportunity to choose their future leaders in next year’s elections.” 

He wished “much success to the Honorable Wanda Vázquez-Garced as Governor of Puerto Rico,” and said he remains “available to further any initiative to improve the quality of life of our people and to ensure that the federal government fulfills its responsibility of providing the assistance that Puerto Rico needs for its recovery and reconstruction.”

He concluded his statement by expressing his “appreciation, from the bottom of my heart, for the support I have received from so many people and so many sectors and organizations of our society. Also, I appreciate all those mayors, representatives, and senators that supported me in the past few days, when I gave Puerto Rico my best. Just like I have been available to serve my Island in the past, I assure you I will continue to be available in the future.”

During a brief press conference at his office in the Capitol, House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez said his chamber was “pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision” and urged Vázquez to “call and set up a meeting with me and the Senate president, maintaining the constitutional order and initiate a reflection process on what steps she will take next,” as well as “immediately fill the vacancies in the government of Puerto Rico…to maintain stability and continuity.”

When asked if some sort of negotiation has taken place to appoint Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González as secretary of State to be able to take the governor’s office, the speaker replied that “there has been no negotiation; there has been no conversation in that sense.”

However, Méndez said, “We have to sit down with Wanda Vázquez,” adding, “She has said in some expressions that she’s not interested in the post, but we have to sit down now under this new reality.”

Méndez assured that the House would consider any appointments made by Vázquez, “but, if the appointment were of Jenniffer González, we will treat it the same way we do with all officials when the House has to evaluate an appointment,” adding that a sworn statement would not be sufficient to evaluate any future appointments.

Minority Popular Democratic Party (PDP) President Anibal José Torres called on Vázquez to start a “dialogue with the people” and avoid being an “emissary of the New Progressive Party directorship.”

“Before submitting herself to the imminent pressures of the heads of the legislative bodies, the governor should demand respect and draw the line, sending a message that under her incumbency—long or short—she will not respond to political pressures,” the PDP at-large lawmaker said in a statement, adding that she will disappoint islanders if her selection of a candidate for secretary of state is an NPP hack.

Meanwhile, Raúl Maldonado Jr. renewed his attacks on Vázquez, saying she is unfit to be governor because she refused to probe corruption in the former Rosselló administration and participated in its persecution of opponents.

Maldonado Jr. is the son of former Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado, who was fired by Rosselló after revealing he had spoken to federal authorities and said there was an “institutional mafia” in the department and that Rosselló had threatened him and his family.

Maldonado was also dismissed from his positions as Office of Management and Budget director and CFO on June 24. Maldonado Jr. insisted on the legitimacy of his father’s allegation that the governor was corrupt and said he witnessed Rosselló’s request that an audit by BDO on the handling of shipping containers with aid for Hurricane María victims be changed. Then-first lady Beatriz Rosselló was the spokeswoman of the aid organization.

Rosselló said his administration would conduct an investigation into Maldonado’s allegations.

“To earn the trust of the people you have to demonstrate that it’s a new government. You can’t continue on with personalities from the past,” Maldonado Jr. said in remarks posted on social media after Vázquez was sworn in. “We have to return trust to the investigative institutions of the country. No one trusts the Justice Department.”

Maldonado Jr. claimed in his post that while Vázquez headed Justice, “arbitrary investigations” and “fabricated cases” were made against journalists and government officials who opposed the administration. He said he was “still waiting” for the conclusion of a Police probe into his firearms collection, which he called as “simple as the conclusion that Law 7 was unconstitutional.”

—Limarys Suárez and José Alvarado contributed to this report.

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