Flanked by fellow U.S. House of Representatives Members from both national parties, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R/New Progressive Party) Saturday said that she plans to introduce a bipartisan bill to appropriate money for assistance related to the earthquakes in the central southwestern part of the island of Puerto Rico since December 28th.
Touring the area with her congressional colleagues, she made clear that the bill would be an alternative to a $3.35 billion proposal of House Democratic leaders but added that, “we will work together.”
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has suggested that the existing legislation would be approved by the House next week. Timing with the Senate remains unclear as the impeachment trial of President Trump gets underway.
Joining Gonzalez-Colon were three Floridians, Bill Posey (R), Stephanie Murphy (D), and Donna Shalala (D). Shalala explained that, “this has nothing to do with political parties. Earthquakes are not Republicans or Democrats . . . what’s important here is that this is a bipartisan delegation.”
Another development in Puerto Rico Saturday, however, gave the Trump Administration an excuse for its approach to additional disaster aid for the territory. During the morning, a blogger revealed the existence of a huge warehouse in Ponce — in the earthquake area — full of undistributed supplies for relief from Hurricane Maria. Among many other items were water and baby food that by now has past their expiration dates.
According to a report, there is at least one more warehouse with disaster relief supplies that authorities failed to distribute after Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes. It is in Guaynabo in the San Juan metropolitan area.
The Mayor of the largest municipality affected by the earthquakes, Mayor Maria “Mayita” Melendez of Ponce (PNP), expressed outrage saying that, “I spent several days requesting cots and water. They sent me to Cabo Rojo for the cots and to San Juan for the water.”
By the afternoon, Governor Wanda Vazquez Garced fired Commissioner of Emergency and Disaster Management Carlos Acevedo Caballero. Later, she dismissed Secretary of the Family Glorimar Andujar Matos and Secretary of Housing Fernando Gil Ensenat after being told by one “I don’t know” related to the unused supplies and “I’ll look into it” by the other.
She also asked Secretary of State Elmer Roman Gonzalez, a former Secretary of Public Safety, to investigate the matter and report back within 48 hours.
Vazquez explained today that she fired Gil because he said that it would be difficult for Puerto Rico to comply with new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administratively-imposed requirements for accessing $16.506 billion in Community Development Block Grants related to Hurricane Maria. She said that his statement contradicted her position that the territory would do what it needed to for the money.
Regarding the unused supplies, HUD Secretary Ben Carson tweeted, “The news from Puerto Rico is disturbing, to say the least. For healing to begin, corruption must end. This underlines the importance of reforms and financial controls that we put in place to ensure that these resources reach those who need them most.”
Donald Trump Jr. took to social media to write, “So Trump was right after all!!! As usual.” He also questioned whether the revelations of wasted aid would receive as much national news media attention as there was criticism of the President’s responses to Puerto Rico’s disasters.
Commissioner Gonzalez-Colon acknowledged that the discovered unused assistance was damaging to the territorial government’s credibility with Puerto Ricans and the Federal government.
Yesterday, protestors outside the Governor’s mansion yelled for Vazquez to resign for “hiding” the unused aid and to “take the Board with you,” referring to the PROMESA Financial Board.
This afternoon, Vazquez’s first Secretary of the Governorship, Zoe Laboy, called for the Governor to retire her candidacy for the office. Laboy resigned when Vazquez reversed herself and announced that she would seek the PNP nomination for governor in the June primary this year. Laboy has been a supporter of former PROMESA Board outside lawyer and lobbyist, and Governor for five days this summer, and ex-Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi for the nomination, as has Gil.
The investigation of the undistributed supplies asked for by Vazquez was actually done by the Bureau of Special Investigations. It blamed Acevedo. The Governor immediately referred it to the Department of Justice last night.
She also asked the National Guard to inventory and distribute unused disaster relief supplies. Today, she named Guard Adjutant General Jose Reyes Commissioner of Emergency and Disaster Management.