Puerto Rico’s cabinet scandals, in context

by | Mar 4, 2019 | Puerto Rico | Comments

During much of January and February, the cabinet of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló (NPP, D) was riddled with nebulous interactions, controversies, and accusations concerning his cabinet members. The latest of these incidents came on February 13 with the issuance of an apparent contempt arrest warrant for the Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, which was explicitly done to elicit a quicker response from the Department of Education regarding documents the federal government was requesting. Afterwards, a gubernatorial press release clarified that the Department of Education was cooperating fully with authorities, and the warrant was essentially rendered null. In addition, there was a controversy involving Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State, Luis Rivera Marín, who took a temporary leave while he was under fire for not being upfront about details concerning an aid mission to Venezuela.

These incidents were not isolated events. The Cabinet was already under intense scrutiny, especially after the resignation of the Secretary of the Treasury, Teresita Fuentes, in late January. Fuentes abruptly left the Treasury, citing irreparable differences between herself and the then Chief Financial Officer of the government and Chief of Staff, Raúl Maldonado Gautier, who was only recently donned the title of CFO (previously belonging to Fuentes) by Governor Rosselló. What further exacerbated the situation, was that Maldonado Gautier received the new position even while undergoing rather serious nepotism accusations, stemming from his time as Secretary of the Treasury; this for issuing contracts to “Virtus”, an IT consulting firm that subcontracted Maldonado Gautier’s son.

The move was widely characterized as a conflict of interest; so much so that on January 15, Rosselló revoked Maldonado Gautier’s authority to approve government payments in excess of $10,000. Amidst the scandal, the President of the Popular Democratic Party, Senator Aníbal José Torres, called for the termination of the Chief of Staff during a senatorial address. Maldonado Gautier countered with a letter emphasizing the transparency with which he acted while granting the aforementioned contracts. Ultimately, the controversy amounted to no grave indictments, and Maldonado Gautier hung around long enough to see Teresita Fuentes relinquish her position as Secretary of the Treasury.

Now, the hot button issue shifted to whom would be named to Fuentes’ former position. Maldonado Gautier, who previously held the title of Secretary of the Treasury from 2017 to 2018, was the obvious alternative. In only a couple of days, Rosselló announced the appointment of his former Chief of Staff as not only the new Secretary of the Treasury, but also as the Head of the Office of Management and Budget and declared a merger of these offices with Maldonado Gautier having primary managerial responsibilities. Additionally, the newly named Secretary also regained his previously stripped authority to approve contracts.

The notion that an official could so rapidly attain, lose, then regain authority over part of the islands’ finances underlined a convoluted reality for many politicians who believed Governor Roselló was not lending enough credence to the allegations concerning his Chief of Staff. Such beliefs opened the floodgates for the media and congressmen and women alike to voice their concerns for the overall wellbeing and efficacy of the Puerto Rican cabinet.