Puerto Rico's Next Governor Is Under Fire and She Hasn't Even Taken Office

Massive protests forced Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to resign and his replacement is facing an uprising amid a new controversy

Puerto Rico’s soon-to-be Gov. Wanda Vázquez is already under fire a week before she's set to take office.

Vázquez, the head of the island’s justice department, is being investigated for allegedly failing to look into possible irregularities with the distribution of relief aid following Hurricane Maria in 2017. She's also being investigated over alleged influence peddling involving the government’s medical cannabis board.

The island's Office of Government Ethics announced its probe into both areas on Thursday, less than 24 hours after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he would resign in response to mass protests. 

As a result, protesters who had called for Rosselló to step down have since switched their hashtag from #RickyRenuncia (Ricky, resign) to #WandaRenuncia (Wanda, resign).

Meanwhile, Vázquez met with Rosselló on Friday morning to plan an "orderly transition," he said on Twitter. 

Vázquez is supposed to assume the governor position next Friday, Aug. 2, at 5 p.m. But members of her party as well as the opposition don't think she has much of a future as governor, if she even gets the chance to assume office. 

The new scandal broke Thursday when a prominent, independent Puerto Rican journalist, Sandra Rodríguez Cotto, published a string of documents and messages from 2018 on her blog, purportedly from Vázquez and Raúl Maldonado, the former treasury secretary and chief of staff to Rosselló.

The messages show that Vázquez was asked by Maldonado to investigate problems with the distribution of aid under Unidos por Puerto Rico, a project championed by first lady Beatriz Rosselló, from which Rosselló has since distanced herself.

Unidos por Puerto Rico was heavily criticized at the time by people on the island and even by the president of Puerto Rico's Senate, Thomas Rivera-Schatz, a political rival of Vázquez from the same party, for allegedly favoring people with close ties to the government. The organization also allegedly held trailers with aid that were then unused.

In the leaked messages, Vázquez said that it was convenient to say “there was no criminal action and no intervention from Justice was needed.” That determination was made without opening an investigation, according to journalist Rodríguez Cotto. 

The Office of Government Ethics' probe is also digging into documents where Maldonado also briefed Vázquez on possible influence peddling and irregularities involving the Medical Cannabis Board in Puerto Rico. The allegations were referred to him by the island’s health department secretary, Rafael Rodríguez-Mercado, in September of last year. 

In that briefing, Maldonado alleged that a governor’s former consultant on infrastructure and development and her husband were pressuring the former head of the Medical Cannabis Board, Antonio Quilinchini, to provide the consultant's husband the licenses to open 69 medical cannabis dispensers from his clients.

Vázquez reacted on Thursday by denying the report from Rodríguez Cotto.

“The alleged irregularities in the cannabis industry were referred to the head of prosecutors, Olga Castellón-Miranda, and is currently under investigation,” Vázquez said in a written statement.

Regarding the messages exchanged with Maldonado, Vázquez said they’re being wrongfully interpreted and she's been subjected to “vicious attacks."

Besides the investigation and rejection from protesters in the streets and on social media, Vázquez faces other hurdles.

Most lawmakers from Rosselló’s statehood-supporting New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish), the commonwealth-supporting Popular Democratic Party (PPD, in Spanish) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, in Spanish) don’t want Vázquez to become governor.

“It’s absurd to have Wanda Vázquez as governor. The Justice Department is not operating properly, corruption is rampant and that’s because of its leader,” House representative José Enrique Meléndez (PNP) told NBC.

Meléndez is hoping that Rosselló instead names a secretary of state to then take over as governor.

Minority representative Ángel Matos-García (PPD) agrees. He said that Rosselló “needs to appoint someone who can reinstate peace and order for Puerto Rico [...] Wanda Vázquez represents lack of reliability.”

“We should have a secretary of state with no political aspirations in order to rebuild the country that has been torn apart,” Matos-García said.

The minority lawmaker is also calling for Rosselló to fill some of the other 18 vacant positions in the governor's cabinet before his departure next week. 

Why is Wanda Vázquez next in line?
Puerto Rico’s constitution, enacted 67 years ago, establishes that if the governor’s position is vacant, the secretary of state fills that position. If both posts were to be simultaneously vacant, as in the current scenario, there’s a 1952 act that establishes a line of succession. The head of the island’s justice department would be next.

However, that law says that all heads of agency in the line of succession have to be appointed and not interim secretaries, except for the secretary of state, who can be an interim secretary and become governor.

“I’m surprised no one has thought of that possibility,” professor Efrén Rivera-Ramos from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law told NBC.

“The governor can name an interim secretary of state right now and that person can become the governor when he leaves without the approval of the legislative branch,” he said.

Constitutionally, there’s no problem with the move, the lawyer said. “Politically [...] That’s a different conversation.”

The governor can also call for a special session to get a secretary of state confirmed. 

Both Meléndez and Matos-García said that many names are being mentioned as potential governors if Rosselló were to nominate a secretary of state. Among those are the resident commissioner in Washington, Jenniffer González, who's reportedly not interested, a former resident commissioner and past primary contender for governor against Rosselló, Pedro Pierluisi, and a former secretary of transportation and the public works department, Carlos Pesquera.

"I don't know what is going to happen," Meléndez said.

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