Puerto Rico’s leadership up in the air hours before governor to step down

Pedro Pierluisi gives a statement to attend his nomination as Secretary of State during a public hearing of the Commission of Government of the House of Representatives called upon by the President of the House, Johnny Mendez, hours before Ricardo Rossello steps down as Governor of Puerto Rico, in San Juan, Puerto Rico August 2, 2019. REUTERS/Gabriella N. Baez

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Hours before Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló is due to resign on Friday after 12 days of street protests, the 3.2 million residents of the bankrupt U.S. territory remained unclear about who would succeed him.

The revelation of vulgar text messages between the first-term governor and his associates brought thousands into the streets to protest. Anger had been building for years over a series of crises including the island’s bankruptcy filing, ineffective recovery efforts after a 2017 hurricane killed more than 3,000 people and a corruption investigation.

Rosselló is due to resign at 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT). Protesters and leaders of the ruling party who seek to retain power in the 2020 elections have all rejected his chosen successor: a lawyer who worked for the unpopular fiscal control board, Pedro Pierluisi.

“I’m not for sale,” Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (PNP), said on Twitter Friday, rejecting the choice. “I’m not scared of them. I’m not intimidated by their media blackmail, nor their attempts at demonization. My principles are not negotiable.”

Rosselló nominated Pierluisi as secretary of state, which would put him next in line to succeed the governor. The appointment requires approval by the legislature.

Protesters have already vowed to topple the next in line for the job, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, owing to her position in an administration dogged by corruption scandals.

Federal officials and investors are keenly watching political transition of the territory. Puerto Rico has $42.5 billion in federal disaster funding allocated to it, and its bankruptcy the biggest ever in the U.S. municipal bond market.

On Thursday, the PNP-controlled Senate delayed a hearing on Pierluisi’s nomination until Monday. That left the island’s House of Representatives to decide his fate on Friday.

If the House votes against the 60-year-old attorney, as expected, Vázquez would become governor, House speaker Carlos Méndez said.

There was also the possibility Rosselló could nominate a last-minute alternative candidate for secretary of state. Schatz has been rumored to want the job, but on Thursday said he had neither asked for the post nor been offered it.

There was talk Rosselló might postpone his resignation until the succession process was resolved.

Independent Senator José Antonio Vargas Vidot urged the legislature to quickly resolve the power vacuum and end the uncertainty plaguing the island since protests began on July 13.

“Vázquez’s rejection is clear among the majority of people speaking up everywhere,” Vidot said. “We have to act faster.”

(Reporting by Luis Valentin in San Juan, additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago, writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

Governor resignation sparks power struggle in Puerto Rico

FILE PHOTO: Puerto Rico's Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez stands next to Governor Ricardo Rossello during a news conference in an undated still image from file video in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Courtesy WIPR NOTISEIS via REUTERS.

By Nick Brown

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – The resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor after mass protests has sparked a succession battle, and the winner could be a Washington corporate lawyer not directly linked to his administration, which has been dogged by corruption scandals.

Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Wednesday he would step down on Aug. 2 in the face of public anger over the release of profane chat messages and embezzlement charges against two former administration officials.

In line with the U.S. territory’s constitution, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez is next in line to succeed Rossello, based on current Cabinet vacancies.

Protesters who forced Rosselló from office have vowed to oppose Vazquez, saying she is too close to the disgraced governor.

That has prompted leaders of Rossello’s pro-statehood party to look to a former Puerto Rico representative in the U.S. Congress as a possible successor, according to four sources familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named so they could discuss it.

Pedro Pierluisi, who represented the island in Washington from 2009 to 2017, has made it clear to party leaders he would accept the job, according to one of these people.

Pierluisi, currently an attorney with Washington law firm O’Neill & Borges, ran against Rossello in the gubernatorial election in 2016, losing in a primary.

A member of Rossello’s New Progressive Party (PNP), Pierluisi could become the commonwealth’s next governor if he is nominated and confirmed as secretary of state before Rossello resigns. That post, currently vacant, is first in line to succeed the governor.

Also vying for the position is Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz of the PNP, these people said.

EYES ON 2020

Foremost in the minds of party leaders is whether Rossello’s successor can help them retain the governorship when it comes up for grabs in November 2020.

Pierluisi, a former Puerto Rico secretary of justice, is favored by some Puerto Rico advocates in Washington for his familiarity with federal politics, according to one of the sources. Another of the sources said Pierluisi has stressed to party leaders that he would not seek re-election in 2020, to keep the door open for Schatz, Puerto Rico’s current delegate to the U.S. Congress Jenniffer Gonzalez, or another candidate.

Schatz is seen by some in the party as too closely linked to Rossello to be a viable successor or 2020 candidate, the people said.

Puerto Ricans want a leader to steer them out of crisis and economic recession after Rossello’s term was marked by back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed around 3,000 people just months after the U.S. territory filed for bankruptcy.

Pierluisi had a track record of gaining increased federal funding for Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million people while serving in Congress.

He also faced accusations in a 2016 New York Times report of possible conflicts of interest between legislation he introduced and financial consulting work by his wife, allegations they both denied.

Pierluisi has been named by local media as a possible successor to Rossello since his former secretary of state stepped down in the wake of the online chat scandal.

In the chats, published on July 13, Rossello and 11 top aides made offensive statements about female political opponents, gay pop singer Ricky Martin and ordinary Puerto Ricans.

(Reporting by Nick Brown in San Juan; additional reporting and writing by Andrew Hay; editing by Jonathan Oatis)