Puerto Rico faced the possibility of political turmoil Tuesday as the U.S. territory's governor welcomed an investigation into allegations that she obstructed justice amid calls from the main opposition party for a legislative probe and a possible impeachment process.
The obstruction claim was leveled by the opposition Monday over Gov. Wanda Vázquez's ousting of the island's justice minister on Friday.
The fired official, Dennise Longo, issued a statement Tuesday saying the governor and other officials are targets of an investigation that began earlier this year involving the alleged mismanagement of supplies slated for Puerto Ricans affected by a series of strong earthquakes. Longo, who did not provide any details of the case, said she had referred that matter for investigation the day she was forced out.
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Vázquez denied Longo was removed in retribution for the probe, saying that she did not know she was being investigated. She said that Longo was asked to quit because of purported interference in an unrelated federal probe into possible Medicaid fraud.
The governor said she is ready to face justice if the case involving emergency supplies has merit. “I have nothing to fear,” Vázquez said during a lengthy news conference.
Vázquez was Puerto Rico’s justice secretary before the island’s Supreme Court ruled that she should be sworn in as governor after Ricardo Rosselló resigned the post nearly a year ago following huge street protests fueled in part by anger over corruption. Shortly after Vázquez’s news conference ended, messages began circulating on social media calling for a demonstration in front of the governor’s mansion Tuesday evening.
On Monday, leaders of the opposition Popular Democratic Party announced that they had requested a legislative investigation into the allegations of obstruction of justice.
“The people need to hear from the governor herself,” said Aníbal Torres, president of the party.
He and other opposition legislators said an impeachment process should not be ruled out if necessary.
It was not immediately clear if Rep. Johnny Méndez, leader of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, who is a member of Vázquez’s party, would grant permission for such an investigation. He tweeted Tuesday that he would listen to the governor’s news conference before making any decisions.
“Our people demand total and absolute transparency in the public function. Puerto Rico doesn’t deserve less than that,” Méndez wrote.
Vázquez is competing in the Aug. 9 primary of the pro-statehood Progressive New Party to be its candidate for governor in the island’s general elections in November.
Adding to the questions, a former judge who serves as president of the territory's Special Independent Prosecutor's Panel said that someone from the Department of Justice was about to drop off files Monday related to six cases slated for investigation but abruptly left after receiving a call from someone at the Department of Justice.
“That has never happened before,” Nydia Cotto told The Associated Press.
Cotto declined to identify the people named in those cases or share any other details, saying they were confidential.
Puerto Rico’s new justice secretary, Wandymar Burgos, said in a statement that she requested the documents on the six cases be returned because she had just found out about them Monday and needed to know what they were about.
Vázquez defended Burgos' decision. “It might be unusual, but that doesn't mean it's wrong or illegal,” the governor said.
During the news conference, Vázquez ordered the Department of Justice to turn over the documents to the Special Independent Prosecutor's Panel. Shortly afterward, the panel issued a separate statement ordering justice officials to immediately turn over those files.
Sen. Thomas Rivera Schatz, president of Puerto Rico's Senate and a top leader of the governor's party, called Tuesday for Burgos' resignation and said action might be taken once the investigative panel reviews the files and makes a determination.
During the news conference, Vázquez accused Longo of improperly intervening in a federal investigation into alleged Medicaid fraud in Puerto Rico, and noted that Longo's mother at the time was subsecretary of the island's Health Department.
Longo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The governor acknowledged she has not ordered an investigation into Longo. She said she only learned the details of the allegations against Longo on Friday thanks to a reporter's question earlier that day that prompted her to ask for the case file. She said she then decided to ask Longo to resign that day.