The now-former Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat concluded yesterday that his ouster responds to the New Progressive Party's (PNP) fight over the future gubernatorial nominee and his support for former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierlusi who runs against Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced.
Since Sunday, the reasons for removing the former Housing Secretary remained unknown. In announcing that she fired Gil Enseñat, the governor just argued that she had lost confidence in the official.
This changed yesterday at noon when the Governor said Gil Enseñat "made remarks to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) contesting the grant agreement issued by that agency."
"We are not going to allow anything that puts at risk” the disbursement of funds allocated to Puerto Rico to address the needs of our people," Vázquez Garced said in written statements.
In an interview with El Nuevo Día, Gil Enseñat said yesterday that his complaint Friday referred to new HUD requirements to release Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery funds (CDBG-DR) which now include special evaluations by the Oversight Board and the Federal Financial Monitor.
These "obstacles," he said, could further delay reconstruction works that are just beginning, partly because of the White House's decision to withhold congressional appropriations for Puerto Rico alleging corruption in the island's political class. However, by the end of 2019, the government had only used $10.8 million of the $1.607 billion aid package it already has available.
"The idea was to talk to the federal government to make it more flexible or to grant a waiver for some terms or conditions," Gil Enseñat said.
This is a similar statement to the one made by the governor herself Friday. She indicated that she would ask for changes to these new restrictions or "obstacles" on the use of $ 8,200 billion in relief aid allocated after Hurricane María struck the island in 2017.
"What the governor says" is not consistent with me trying to put reconstruction funds at risk. My comments at a press conference Friday were that there were additional obstacles that were not included in other grant agreements. I don't understand how that could have jeopardized recovery funds," Gil Enseñat told El Nuevo Día.
Yesterday, La Fortaleza Public Affairs Secretary Osvaldo Soto said that they will not be making further comments to the governor's written statement, who denied having decided to fire him due to political reasons.
"In my opinion, there are political motives, which I deeply regret because I consider the governor to be a professional, with a long career, a hard worker, and a mother. I fully supported her and I focused on complying with the law, regulations, and the Constitution, as a swore a constitutional oath,” said Gil Enseñat.
The governor said there were no political reasons involved and that you put the reconstruction funds at risk.
- What they say that I put federal funds at risk, the federal funds that came as recently as last week is nothing but an excuse seeking to undermine my credibility, my reputation. I can't find a way that I may have affected the process, doing my job, letting them know that some terms and conditions were not imposed on any other jurisdiction and saying that it could affect program areas or programs and cause delays.
What do you mean by delay? What are you anticipating?
- We were evaluating how long those new terms and conditions might delay the reconstruction process. There are new conditions for action plans including the Board and also the Federal Monitor. All that back and forth in the process of delivering documents is likely to delay programs and the distribution of aid to people.
Did the governor give you any instructions that you did not comply with, warn you of anything, or did you, somehow, made a decision contrary to the governor that may have involved any kind of insubordination?
-No. There were no observations.
Were you in any way involved with the warehouse discovered in Ponce that shows the mishandling of emergency supplies?
- We had no responsibility in that warehouse. We had warehouses, in Public Housing, in Cabo Rojo, and Río Piedras, in the old facilities of the former CRUV (Puerto Rican Urban Renewal Housing Corporation.)
What the government argues that the person who knew of those supplies was Carlos Acevedo (the ousted Commissioner for the State Bureau for Emergency Management). Were you aware of this?
- I did not know about the existence of that warehouse, in that specific area. I did know about the distribution centers that were established. I was unaware of the contents. We knew that FEMA established other warehouses, in addition to the one they have in Caguas, and that there were other Emergency Management warehouses.
To questions from El Nuevo Día, Gils Enseñat confirmed that he was often critical of how emergencies were handled, including the January 7 earthquake and the aftershocks. Similarly, he confirmed that at least one agency head sent a private contractor to the Emergency Operations Center meetings as his official representative. According to sources, that person was Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez and that his representative was contractor Rafael González, a private contractor.
After Gil Enseñat's dismissal, an audit was leaked to the media, in the document, the federal government classified a regular CDBG grant, not related to Puerto Rico´s reconstruction process, as "high risk."
Gil Enseñat explained that those funds were initially managed by the former Office of the Commissioner of Municipal Affairs, then went to the Office for Socioeconomic and Community Development (ODSEC), and finally to the Housing Department.
"Moving the grant from one agency to the other, several times gives the federal government the authority to classify us at high risk with some obstacles included in a corrective action plan. This does not affect the use of funds. In short, (the funds) are tied to the conditions of the corrective action plan... We had nothing to do with that grant. We´ve had those funds for less than a year," he said.
Referral to Justice
On the other hand, amid the controversy, the secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC), Manuel Laboy, revealed yesterday that more than two months ago he made a referral to the Justice Department and HUD against Gil Enseñat for alleged mismanagement of CDBG-DR funds.
Laboy limited himself to confirming the referral without offering details about the alleged irregularities he attributed to his former cabinet colleague.
When asked about this, Gil Enseñat was confident that he would come out of the process without problems because it was a procedural disagreement with the head of the DDEC and that, given the differences between the two agencies, no public funds were disbursed as a precautionary measure.
"There was no hiring and the process ended because the situation reached unthinkable levels. The matter was brought before the governor and the decision was to seek a third party to define the course to follow in this process. We were waiting for the report by that person," Gil Enseñat said.
On Sunday, the emergency aid scandal and Gil Enseñat's ousting from Housing caused HUD chief Ben Carson to say that "for the healing to begin, the corruption must end."
Reporters José A. Delgado, Gloria Ruiz Kuilan, and Keila López Alicea collaborated with this story.