US lawmaker who oversees Puerto Rico calls for governor to resign after six arrested on corruption charges

WASHINGTON – The Democratic lawmaker who chairs the House committee that oversees Puerto Rico called on the island’s governor to step down after six people, including Puerto Rico’s former secretary of education, were arrested Wednesday on federal fraud charges. 

Former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, the former head of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration, were arrested on 32 counts of fraud, theft and money laundering, along with two businessmen and two sisters who worked as education contractors.

In the indictment, prosecutors allege that Keleher steered government contracts “through a corrupt bidding process” to an unqualified firm run by Glenda Ponce-Mendoza and Mayra Ponce-Mendoza with whom she had a “close relationship.” 

Federal agents escort former Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration head Ángela Ávila-Marrero who was arrested in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 10, 2019. (Photo: Carlos Giusti, AP)

“It was alleged that the defendants engaged in a public corruption campaign and profited at the expense of the Puerto Rican citizens and students,” said Neil Sanchez, special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General’s Southern Region at a news conference on Wednesday.

Officials said there was no evidence that Keleher or Ávila-Marrero had personally benefited from the scheme.

On Wednesday, a tweet from the National Resources Committee – which has jurisdiction over U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico – said that Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., “is calling for Gov. Rossello of Puerto Rico to step down given multiple arrests in a corruption probe.” 

CHair @RepRaulGrijalva is calling for Gov. Rossello of Puerto Rico to step down given multiple arrests in a corruption probe. The @washingtonpost story is accurate, despite some confusion. https://t.co/sVAwGRGlvs

“We’ve crossed that crucible now,” Grijalva told The Washington Post. “The restoration of accountability is so key going forward.” 

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said on Twitter that he is returning to Puerto Rico from a family vacation “immediately” in light of the significance of the arrests.  

“The allegations against the people arrested today are a disgrace,” Rosselló tweeted. “Our public policy is clear: we will fight corruption in all its forms. No one is above the law.” 

U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez said that Rosselló was not a part of the investigation.

But Wednesday’s arrests are the latest in a series of corruption cases that have been brought in Puerto Rico in recent months. On June 28, the FBI announced it was “investigating patterns of conduct concerning government corruption and fraud” in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

“It’s a shame that we see this type of scheme, one after another,” Rodríguez said. “This is the type of case that’s been seen so much, involving federal funds, and it’s shameful.” 

The problem of corruption has raised concerns on Capitol Hill about billions of dollars in disaster relief money that are being sent to the island. And the arrests come as the territory continues its efforts to dig itself out of what The Wall Street Journal says in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. 

A statement from the Natural Resources Committee pointed out that “the arrests took place against the backdrop of the Puerto Rican people’s ongoing struggle to receive federal relief money years after Hurricane Maria wiped out significant portions of the island’s infrastructure and economy.” 

President Donald Trump has criticized Puerto Rican officials in the wake of Hurricane Maria, tweeting that all they do “is complain” and “ask for more money.” He said the island’s politicians are “grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly,” and “only take from USA.” 

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Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane, more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before, & all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money. The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA….

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San Juan Mayor Carmen YulÍn Cruz – who has feuded with Trump over his handling of the disaster relief for Puerto Rico and his denial of the official death toll of more than 3,000 – expressed concern in a tweet on Wednesday that the arrests could hurt the fight for more federal disaster relief from Washington. 

“Puerto Rico is much more than the difficult arrests we faced today,” she said in a tweet. She said that while the allegations were “shameful” and an embarrassment for the island, “there are people who still need help.”

“This much needed aid should not be ‘weaponized’ and used for political purposes.”

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Puerto Rico is much more than the difficult arrests we faced today. While the events of today are shameful and embarrasing to all, there are people who still need help. This much needed aid should not be “weaponized” and used for political purposes.

Cruz, who announced she is running for governor in 2020, has been a fierce critic of Rosselló and she said the statement from Grijalva was “proof” that he does not have credibility in Washington. 

“The governor of Puerto Rico and his administration have now given President Trump the ammunition he needed,” Cruz said, according to the Post. 

“Maintaining the trust of the people is a constant challenge,” Rosselló said in a statement on Wednesday. “This trust is torn when public officials or those tied to them are accused of crimes of corruption.” 

“As governor I assume the responsibility and commitment to combat this evil in all instances.” 

“Announcing a zero-tolerance attitude toward corruption is easy. Taking meaningful steps to prevent and punish it is leadership,” Grijalva said Wednesday. “Gov. Rosselló has little time and much to do to restore public faith in his government, and I urge him to take a housecleaning approach as quickly and thoroughly as possible.” 

Contributing: The Associated Press 

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