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Puerto Rico Governor’s Office is Occupied, Maybe by a Governor

Michael Deibert, Jonathan Levin and Michelle Kaske
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Puerto Rico Governor’s Office is Occupied, Maybe by a Governor

(Bloomberg) -- After days of back-room politicking and wrangling over thorny constitutional questions, Puerto Rico has a new governor. Perhaps.

The bankrupt island’s House of Representatives on Friday confirmed Pedro Pierluisi as secretary of state, the official who would succeed Governor Ricardo Rossello, who resigned at 5 p.m. But the Senate won’t consider the question until next week, and it’s unclear whether Pierluisi can hold the job.

On Friday, Pierluisi, 60, wasted little time. He took the governor’s oath seconds after Rossello stepped down. He held a news conference where he said he would leave if the Senate spurned him to avoid a protracted crisis that could be solved only in court.

“It is important that Puerto Rico has a governor without interruption and not a single moment without one,” he said. “If the Senate ratifies me, this is going to be for the rest of the term. If the Senate doesn’t ratify me, this is only until Wednesday.”

The succession crisis is just the latest reverse for a star-crossed U.S. territory of 3.2 million people. Puerto Rico has been in recession for years, it’s in its second year of bankruptcy, it labors under a federal oversight board and it’s still rebuilding after Hurricane Maria in 2017. After years of hardship, massive protests began last month after the release of leaked chats among Rossello and aides that disparaged rivals and ordinary residents. Several top officials in the line of succession fled the administration.

‘Public Enemy’

Pierluisi, a former nonvoting representative to the U.S. Congress, was sworn in at his sister’s house Friday despite the unsettled situation. He said he wouldn’t move into the governor’s mansion, called Fortaleza, until next week. Pierluisi said that if his nomination fails in the Senate, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez would become governor -- though she has said she doesn’t want the job .

Pierluisi said he is communicating with Vazquez, whose spokeswoman Mariana Cobian didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who is considered a likely gubernatorial candidate in 2020, has declined to consider Pierluisi’s nomination until next week. And he has called him “Puerto Rico’s public enemy No. 1” for his role in creating the federal oversight board, which is trying to enforce an austerity program to help restructure a debt that hit $74 billion.

But Rossello said before he stepped down that the constitution and related laws hold that in certain emergencies, legislative confirmation of appointments can be bypassed.

“Given that Pedro Pierluisi was named secretary of state during a recess period, and given the vacancy in the governorship, the result is that he should be sworn in as governor for the rest of the current term,” Rossello said.

The decision did little to soothe residents. Angry protesters marched in the streets of Old San Juan, with about 100 police in riot gear standing between them and the governor’s mansion at one point. They chanted against Pierluisi by name. Many see him as complicit in the island’s suffering: As the island’s nonvoting representative in Washington, Pierluisi supported the oversight panel’s creation and has since worked as one of its lawyers.

Antidemocratic Move?

Critics said Rossello was pulling an antidemocratic power play.

“The swearing in as governor of a secretary of state nominee who did not complete his confirmation process constitutes an atrocious act of hijacking the current constitution of Puerto Rico, and it must be corrected by the prompt attention of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico,” said Edgardo Manuel Roman Espada, head of the Puerto Rican College of Attorneys, a powerful professional association.

Pierluisi’s victory was the slimmest possible: He won the support of 26 lawmakers in the 51-member House, which is dominated by his own New Progressive Party. Many island lawmakers oppose Pierluisi because of his ties to the oversight board.

As the nonvoting representative from 2009 to 2017 -- a position known as resident commissioner -- Pierluisi was one of the main proponents of a federal law called Promesa that gave Puerto Rico a path to bankruptcy court but also installed the panel. This week, Pierluisi took a leave from O’Neill & Borges LLC, the board’s on-island law firm. He is among a score of the firm’s lawyers who have filed billable hours for work on the case.

As representatives grilled him in a Friday hearing, he sat alone in the middle of the Leopoldo Figueroa room in the capitol and promised to dismantle what he helped create.

“Who better than I to fight for our people before the board?” Pierluisi said. “Who better than I to put in motion the process that will put an end to the board? That’s what we all want.”

After he took the oath, he promised to listen to residents and end the backroom deals endemic in San Juan.

“We definitely have to be more transparent in our government,” he said Friday evening. “More responsive to the people.”

“They can continue expressing themselves peacefully, and I’ll be listening.”

But he also said that he would continue with the policies that Rossello was elected on. And some -- like the tough fiscal plan approved by the board -- are legally binding, he said.

Meanwhile, at both entrances to Fortaleza, hundreds of protesters beat drums and banged on pots and pans and chanted against Rossello, Pierluisi and the oversight board.

--With assistance from Ezra Fieser.

To contact the reporters on this story: Michael Deibert in San Juan at mdeibert@bloomberg.net;Jonathan Levin in Miami at jlevin20@bloomberg.net;Michelle Kaske in New York at mkaske@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Elizabeth Campbell at ecampbell14@bloomberg.net, Stephen Merelman, Michael B. Marois

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