The removal of Raúl Maldonado Gautier from the three high ranking positions he held in the administration of Ricardo Rosselló Nevares shook the foundations of the government structure and unleashed strong discussions on possible acts of corruption.
Yesterday, Rosselló Nevares lost confidence in the man he had repeatedly awarded positions and power in his administration, which was perceived as a public accolade, even under the most adverse circumstances regarding alleged irregularities.
The ousting came after Maldonado Gautier denounced early, on WKAQ and Z-93, an alleged "institutional mafia" within the Department of the Treasury.
"I am not asking for his resignation because of his expressions but because there are a number of serious allegations that we, as government, must take action on them and we must work with the corresponding entities," said the governor when opening a press conference on the educational voucher program at La Fortaleza.
About three hours after the governor announced his decision, the secretary's son Raúl Maldonado Nieves, who worked with his father, anticipated on social media that he will present evidence that allegedly incriminates Rosselló Nevares.
He placed the governor in a meeting with BDO Puerto Rico President Fernando Scherrer, an accounting firm whose contracts are under investigation by federal authorities. So far, in the 30 months of this administration, the firm almost tripled the number of contracts it had had for eight years (2009-2016).
"I will present my evidence. Governor, tell me if we were not in your office, at a meeting with BDO president and you were asking that the report by United for PR regarding the containers be changed because it affected your wife. Let´s talk about the checks that were in the drawers. If not, about the texts," Maldonado Nieves wrote.
In August 2018, Maldonado Gautier ordered accounting firms BDO Puerto Rico and Robles & Associates of CPA Diego Robles to conduct an audit of the use and handling of containers with supplies for victims of Hurricane María that were found abandoned in Toa Alta and Utuado. Those supplies were part of an initiative by First Lady Beatriz Rosselló's office to bring aid throughout the island. The audit concluded that there was no evidence that the aid had been mishandled or misused.
The governor would not comment on Maldonado Nieves' allegations, said his spokeswoman Dennise Pérez.
The trigger for Rosselló Nevares to oust his right-hand man seems to have been his public expressions about alleged corruption in the Treasury Department and that, according to the governor, "never" discussed with him.
"These allegations have to be investigated immediately so as not to affect the reputation of the vast majority of Treasury officials," Rosselló Nevares said before the press conference.
The governor removed Maldonado Gautier from the Treasury, the Office of Management and Budget, and as the government's chief financial officer (CFO).
In replacement, he appointed Christian Sobrino Vega as the new government CFO and, on an interim basis, in the Office of Management and Budget. He also appointed Francisco Parés as acting Treasury secretary, who was shortly thereafter confirmed by the Senate.
"I will continue to work relentlessly on all the matters entrusted to me, both in the OGP and in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer of the Government of Puerto Rico. I want to make it clear that the approval process for the new government budget will continue and we will address - as usual - all the concerns that arise from the Legislature and from the Fiscal Oversight Board," Sobrino Vega said in written statements.
When El Nuevo Día tried a reaction from Parés but he avoided making expressions and simply said: “I'm not going to make further comments. Let me meet with my team and continue with the work.”
The Inspector General to conduct an investigation
Rosselló Nevares asked Maldonado Gautier to resign and referred his allegations to Inspector General Ivelisse Torres Rivera.
"In the interest of protecting the investigations and safeguarding the due process of law, we will not issue additional comments until the investigations are complete," Torres Rivera said in writing.
The governor urged Maldonado Gautier to
“bring all the evidence he has before local and federal justice authorities so that the full weight of the law comes down on those who have violated it.”
Hours earlier, on local media, Maldonado Gautier had denounced alleged irregularities within the agency he led twice, since the first day of Rosselló Nevares at La Fortaleza and after holding the chief of staff position, after former Treasury secretary Teresita Fuentes resigned last February.
He stressed that there was an ongoing investigation into alleged illegal activities by high-level Treasury employees including influence peddling, issuing false licenses, destroying documents and accessing private taxpayer data.
He even said that he had allegedly been subject to extortion by a high-level Treasury employee, but that the case was being examined by certified public accountants and had not been referred to investigative bodies.
Questioned about whether there was or knew of any other information that might affect or prevent Maldonado Gautier from continuing in office, the governor said he asked for the resignation strictly because the secretary did not report the alleged irregularities in the Treasury before going to the media.
During the press conference, the governor avoided commenting on the alleged irregularities denounced by former Treasury secretary Teresita Fuentes when she resigned last February. Fuentes made it clear in her resignation letter that there were matters in the Treasury that she understood were illegal.
Later, once she left the agency, it was reported that the former secretary had told the governor about Maldonado Gautier's interference in Treasury matters when he was chief of staff. These allegations related to alleged irregularities in the granting of contracts included those of Virtus Consulting and Optima Consulting, both of which are now being investigated by federal authorities.
"There are always processes being carried out, but sometimes there are general allegations, we have auditors for that and processes to conduct that investigation," Rosselló Nevares said.
Weeks before his ousting, Maldonado Gautier's absence from the budget debate was notable, despite he held key positions in the governor's financial team. In fact, according to sources, he´s been distant from La Fortaleza in the last few weeks.
Rosselló Nevares said yesterday that he had not spoken to Maldonado Gautier, but praised his performance in the government noting that Maldonado has done his administrative work.
Meanwhile, Chief of Staff Ricardo Llerandi told El Nuevo Día that he had the governor's order to contact Maldonado Gautier to ask for his resignation.
He denied that it would be contradictory for the governor to remove Maldonado Gautier instead of asking him for more information about the allegations of corruption.
"Agency heads should know that situations like these should be reported in order to refer them to the corresponding authorities, and if they don't, then the governor cannot trust them because these are positions of trust," Llerandi said.
Tension in the Treasury
While the governor was talking about the controversy from La Fortaleza, El Nuevo Día contacted some Treasury Department employees who seem nervous to discuss what had happened with the press.
Three feet away from a sign that read "Talking Prohibited," there were some employees talking while holding cups of coffee. The subject of the conversation was Maldonado´s expressions about the "institutional mafia" and his eventual ousting. However, every time this newspaper came close to them, they would move away.
"See girl, there are cameras everywhere here," said one of the many employees El Nuevo Día tried to contact, they seem to fear of expressing themselves in the face of possible reprisals.
"That's just a small ball of smoke," said an employee about the secretary's remarks before she ran away. However, others thought that the secretary wouldn´t have made such allegations without having evidence.