Washington - After her first day of meetings in Washington, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced said yesterday that she is aware that credibility "is gained over time."
Contrary to the opinion of her Chief of Staff, Zoé Laboy, that they represent a new administration, Vázquez Garced said she promotes "a new style of governance."
"I have been welcomed in a very favorable way," Vázquez Garced said in an interview after meetings with the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Seema Verma, and the assistant secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education, Frank Brogan.
She discussed different federal subsidies with Verma. However, Medicaid allocations required to prevent a collapse in the Puerto Rico health care system next spring will be discussed today with the directors of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), usually reluctant when it comes to allocations for the island.
Vázquez Garced, however, went to the meeting with the federal Department of Education with the idea of convincing officials that, instead of imposing a fiduciary agent –like a trustee- to manage most of the funds in the Puerto Rico Department of Education as has been ordered, they could consider leaving that task in the hands of the Board, which oversees the island's public finances.
"They welcomed the idea," Vázquez Garced said while stating that hiring a company as a fiduciary agent would be expensive and would delay access to funds.
In a letter dated June 28, the U.S. Department of Education ordered the Puerto Rican government to hire an external entity to handle a large portion of the federal funds granted after finding administrative inefficiencies in the Department of Education's Office of Federal Affairs.
The order came days before federal authorities arrested former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and some contractors on corruption charges.
Vázquez Garced said it is important to know the details of the "findings" that justify the appointment of a trustee.
On July 17, the U.S. Education Department´s Office of the Inspector General also determined that the Puerto Rican government could not demonstrate that it had the controls necessary to properly manage those funds.
Vázquez Garced attended the CMS meeting along with by Puerto Rico Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez and Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) Director Jennifer Storipan, among others, while she went with Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez, Washington Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, and Storipan, among others to the meeting with the U.S. Education Department.
Today, in addition to a meeting with the Office of Management and Budget, she will meet with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and with the director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Doug Hoelscher, and Homeland Security Advisor, Peter Brown, in the White House.
The governor will also see U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson, who is in charge of the slow release of nearly $20 billion in funds through the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR), and Assistant Secretary for the Office of Electricity Bruce Walker, with influence over any federal investment to rebuild Puerto Rico's power grid.
HUD is about to appoint a federal monitor to oversee the use of CDBG-DR funds after the crisis in the island's government this summer.
The preliminary agenda given to Vázquez Garced, according to a version El Nuevo Día could access, says Mnuchin would address federal public tax policy toward the island, including the benefit to foreign corporations in Law 154 and the Opportunity Zones program.
It´s difficult to make changes
To demands requesting significant changes in the government and questioning that her efforts to restore credibility to the government clash with the fact that she is attending the meeting virtually with the same team Ricardo Rosselló Nevares had, Vázquez Garced said that, in general, "they are officials who have been doing an extraordinarily complex task for two and a half years."
"Those who don't comply will be out," she said. But she added that it is very difficult to make changes in this moment, alluding, for example, to the experience of officials such as Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat and the executive director of the Fiscal Agency & Financial Advisory Authority, Omar Marrero.
She also gave a vote of confidence to the PRFAA executive director, after Commissioner González, -who had indicated that it was necessary to change almost the entire cabinet that Rosselló Nevares left- said there should be changes in the "functions and staff" of that agency.
About concerns that some officials may still feel committed to the former governor, Vázquez Garced said that "that is a possibility," but she made it clear "that the commitment to Puerto Rico comes first."
Meanwhile, yesterday Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and House Speaker Carlos "Johnny" Méndez avoided pushing for more changes in her cabinet.
"Changes in the cabinet are up to the Executive branch. The cabinet must respond to what the governor's vision is," Rivera Schatz said.