‘Chatgate’ scandal throws Puerto Rico’s governor into crisis
Nearly two years ago, Hurricane Maria exposed the raw dysfunction of Puerto Rico, collapsing long-neglected infrastructure and leaving several thousand dead on Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s watch. Last week, two of his top former officials were arrested by the FBI on corruption charges.
But the scandal that is threatening to buckle the boyish 40-year-old governor centers on a profanity-laced and at times misogynistic online chat with nine other male members of his administration in which some of the U.S. territory’s most powerful men act like a bunch of teenagers. The leak of at least 889 pages of the private chat has sunk Rossello into the deepest crisis of his career.
In the chats on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, Rossello calls one New York female politician of Puerto Rican background a “whore,” describes another as a “daughter of a bitch” and makes fun of an obese man he posed with in a photo. The chat also contains vulgar references to Puerto Rican star Ricky Martin’s homosexuality and a series of emojis of a raised middle finger directed at a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances.
For many Puerto Ricans still recovering from one of the United States’ worst-ever disasters, on the back of the island’s biggest public financial collapse, the scandal analysts and ordinary people are calling “Chatgate” or “Rickyleaks” has proven to be too much.
Thousands of protesters marched in the capital for a third day Monday to call for Rossello’s resignation. Police tried to disperse the marchers with pepper spray in front of the Fortaleza governor’s residence, which was protected by barricades.
The leaders of the U.S. territory’s House and Senate said they weren’t planning impeachment proceedings, but an influential association of mayors from Rossello’s pro-statehood party said he had lost their support. Puerto Rican artists Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, known as Bad Bunny, and Rene Perez, known as Residente, both said on Twitter they planned to return to Puerto Rico to join the protests. Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose production of “Hamilton” on the island is mentioned in the chats, called them “a very disturbing portrait of how this administration operates.”
Even if Rossello survives until election day next year, it seems clear to many observers that he has been profoundly weakened and less able to deal with crises ranging from the island’s bankruptcy proceedings to its continued efforts to receive federal funding to help recovery from Maria.
Late Monday, Rossello released a statement saying he respected the protests and was taking their message into account.
“Unfortunately, despite responsible calls for peaceful demonstrations by many participants, a few others decided to damage public property and assault public officials who tried to preserve order and defend the security and rights of all,” he said.
Chatgate erupted a day after Rossello’s former secretary of education and five other people were arrested on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors. Starting Thursday, an anonymous person or people with access to the chats leaked dozens of pages of them to two local outlets. On Saturday, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages.
In the chat group were Luis Rivera Marin, Rossello’s secretary of state; Christian Sobrino, who held a series of important economic posts; Carlos Bermudez, a one-time communications aide; Edwin Miranda, a communications consultant; Interior Secretary Ricardo Llerandi; Public Affairs Secretary Anthony Maceira and Elias Sanchez, one-time representative to the board overseeing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy.
The group mentions then-New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who had criticized Democratic Party head Tom Perez for opposing Puerto Rican statehood, with Rossello calling her the Spanish word for “whore.”
Referring to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan who had announced her intent to run against Rossello in 2020, the governor says, “she’s off her meds.”
“Either that, or she’s a tremendous HP,” he continues, using the Spanish initials for “son/daughter of a bitch.”
Federal officials said Wednesday morning that former Education Secretary Julia Keleher; former Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration head Angela Avila-Marrero; businessmen Fernando Scherrer-Caillet and Alberto Velazquez-Piñol, and education contractors Glenda E. Ponce-Mendoza and Mayra Ponce-Mendoza, who are sisters, were arrested by the FBI on 32 counts of fraud and related charges.
The alleged fraud involves $15.5 million in federal funding between 2017 and 2019. Thirteen million was spent by the Department of Education during Keleher’s time as secretary while $2.5 million was spent by the insurance administration when Avila was the director.
Despite widespread cynicism in Puerto Rico about politicians’ corruption and self-dealing, the chat shocked residents in a way that other scandals haven’t, particularly given Rossello’s image as a gentle, even meek family man, said Mario Negron Portillo, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s school of public administration.
“Everyone woke up one day and the governor was spouting vulgarities,” Negron said. “There’s nothing worse for a politician than losing legitimacy. I think Ricardo Rossello has lost legitimacy.”
One chat member calls the head of the federal oversight board a “kitten.” Another participant jokes that a female member of the territory’s Senate belonged in a whorehouse. Along with a photo of himself greeting an obese man, the governor writes, “I’m still there. It’s my fourth orbit. He generates a strong gravitational pull.” Talking about a lack of forensic pathologists at a government forensic agency, Sobrino says, “can’t we feed a body to the crows?”
Rivera Marin, Sobrino, Bermudez and Miranda have already resigned or been fired.
Rossello, the son of former Gov. Pedro Rossello, said in a radio interview Monday, “I’m committed to keep working.”
“I know some people think differently, but I’ve determined that it’s better to keep working without distraction, dealing with all the different issues that this situation has created.”
The president of the commonwealth’s House of Representatives, Carlos Mendez Nuñez, said Sunday night that legislators from Rossello’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which has a majority in both houses, did not support starting impeachment proceedings against the governor.
Mendez Nuñez said Rossello had been given a one-week deadline to reflect, show contrition and prove he could continue to govern.
“This week he’ll meet with mayors, with legislators, and we have to give him this time,” Mendez Nuñez said. “Impeachment isn’t on the table yet. But we reserve the right to evaluate if that’s merited.”
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