Washington - On her first trip to Washington as a pre-candidate for La Fortaleza, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced yesterday had to balance her interest in advancing efforts to speed up Puerto Rico´s recovery process following the natural disasters that have hit the island over the last two and a half years, with an internal political battle she is facing on the island.
Just as she arrived Monday night in the U.S. capital, a leaked audio recording of a recent meeting on social media showed the governor warning New Progressive Party (PNP) lawmakers that even though in the past "five months" she has given her party the opportunity "to win (next November) elections", "it is you and no one else," who "are attacking me".
"That people be very aware that many times, these criticisms and this oversight is not such an oversight. (They are) rather political determinations," Vázquez Garced told El Nuevo Día, in reacting to the leaked audio.
When asked if investigations by the PNP-controlled Legislature into the mishandling of supplies for the victims seek to influence the party´s internal primary for the gubernatorial candidacy – she is running against former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi - Vázquez Garced said that the people are “very wise” and will evaluate the “relevance and validity" of such investigations.
As to whether her argument that she has helped the PNP out the crisis triggered by Ricardo Rosselló Nevares' resignation is not partisan politics, the governor said: "it is no secret that I am PNP and pro-statehood, but what I mean is that the people of Puerto Rico are tired of politicking, that I have focused on being the governor for all Puerto Ricans".
Following the early January earthquakes, which particularly hit the south and southwestern areas causing serious damage, Vázquez Garced had to deal with criticism against her administration for possible negligence of the head of the Bureau for State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management (NMEAD) in distributing supplies in the south. She also faced former Secretary of Family Affairs Glorimar Andújar allegations that aid distribution was used for the benefit of PNP politicians.
The governor said Andújar's allegations - who believes have cost her her position in the agency - are under administrative investigation in that department, but in consultation with the Department of Justice.
"My instruction is to complete the investigation, to the final consequences, and make the necessary referrals," the governor said.
Before she was fired, Andújar suspended the head of the Administration of the Socio-Economic Development of the Family (Adsef, Spanish acronym), Surima Quiñones, who was accused of using the distribution of supplies during the emergency caused by the earthquakes to advance the agenda of PNP politicians close to the governor.
Yesterday, Justice Secretary Dennise Quiñones Longo said the investigation into the Ponce warehouse - which led to the ousting of former NMEAD head Carlos Acevedo - could last "two or three years".
Vázquez Garced is in Washington to attend last night President Donald Trump´s State of the Union address invited by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González. But she also met, along with Commissioner González, with Republican Senator Rick Scott (Florida).
Just like Pedro Pierluisi, the governor's primary opponent, Commissioner González has supported an investigation into Andújar's allegations, who even received a message from La Fortaleza Chief of Staff, Antonio Pabón Battle, to reverse her suspension of Quiñones.
When Pierluisi and González - in tandem at the PNP - ask to investigate allegations by the former Family Secretary, do you think they seek to do political damage to you as well?" the governor was asked.
"I can talk about my actions. I can't talk about the interests they may have. What I am saying is that I, as a former Secretary of Justice, as a former district attorney for 23 years, want things done following the law. Anyone who acts against the people must be investigated to the very end," she said.
Agreement with Federal Housing
On the other hand, Vázquez Garced announced her government has officially accepted the grant agreement that will regulate the next $8.221 billion in funds through the Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG-DR).
Vázquez Garced said she accepted the offer by the U.S. Housing Department (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson, which came with new controls and restrictions on those funds.
According to HUD plan, that $8.221 billion package- part of a CDBG-DR allocation of about $20.5 billion - will be distributed in several packages. The first would be about $1.7 billion.
The governor also said that as part of the trip, Puerto Rico designated Housing Secretary Luis Carlos Fernández Trinchet and Acting Housing Secretary Dennis González led a meeting on CDBG-DR funds at HUD.
"We wanted to establish communication with them, to strengthen credibility," said Vázquez Garced, whose expressions regarding confidence improving at the federal level contrast with the new controls they are imposing on the island.
As HUD has proposed for the use of another $8.285 million to be used in mitigation projects that still require an action plan from the Government of Puerto Rico, the agreement on the use of the $8.221 billion requires that these projects have the approval by the new Federal Financial Monitor and that the Oversight Board certifies they comply with the island's fiscal plan and budget.
HUD requirements also ask the government of Puerto Rico to prove it is complying with the island's property registry reform; not to use those funds for anything related to improvements to the power grid and dropping the executive order to pay workers in federally funded reconstruction project $15 an hour. The bureaucratic process is also complicated.
Vázquez Garced fired former Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat because he described those requirements as "too many obstacles". The governor defended again her decision to oust Gil Enseñat's since she considers that "from the beginning, we said we would comply with the requirements".
Days after she fired Gil Enseñat, who supports Pierluisi as a pre-gubernatorial candidate, Vázquez Garced indicated that she was also dissatisfied with the slow use of the first $1.507 billion in CDBG-DR funds available to the island in February 2019 and of which, only $10.8 million had been used until December.
"That was all part of the evaluation... when making the decision," said Vázquez Garced. When asked to explain the low use of CDBG-DR funds, Vázquez Garced simply said that "the analysis of the cases was very slow".
This is Vázquez Garced´s second trip to Washington. She returns to San Juan today. She said that since she is addressing the island's recovery, she won't be staying for the weekend meeting of the National Governors Association, which includes dinner on Sunday and a meeting at the White House on Monday.