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Puerto Rico’s Succession Drama Shifts to Island’s High Court

Jonathan Levin and Michael Deibert

(Bloomberg) -- Puerto Rico’s leadership fight is moving to the courts after the island’s Senate punted on a chance to legitimize Pedro Pierluisi’s controversial claim to the governorship. The chamber’s leader said the failure to vote was tantamount to rejection.

Now, the parties have until noon Tuesday to submit arguments to the commonwealth’s supreme court over whether Pierluisi legally took over when former Governor Ricardo Rossello resigned Friday, despite lacking Senate approval. That’s left Pierluisi in a precarious position, with the possibility he could be forced at any time to stop acting as top executive of the U.S. territory.

“With the utmost deference to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, I will wait for its decision, trusting that what is best for Puerto Rico will prevail,” Pierluisi said in a statement late Monday.

The dizzying developments reflected a constantly moving story playing out simultaneously in court, the halls of the legislature and the streets of San Juan, where protesters have been active for much of the the past month and forced Rossello’s resignation.

The Senate had been expected to vote Monday on Rossello’s nomination of Pierluisi as secretary of state, a position next in line to the governor. When Rossello stepped down after the disclosure of insulting text messages, Pierluisi claimed his place, even though only the commonwealth’s House of Representatives had confirmed him. The island’s constitution also requires the Senate’s imprimatur, Pierluisi’s detractors say.

Private Ceremony

Now, the case goes before a panel of judges.

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz sued Sunday to force Pierluisi to “cease and desist occupying and exercising the functions of the Puerto Rican governorship.” The Senate also requested a ruling on the succession framework, which could permanently undermine any remaining claim Pierluisi might have to the office.

The developments are the latest in a battle that began when Rossello was forced out after chats leaked in which he disparaged average Puerto Ricans. Pierluisi, his chosen successor, took the oath in a private ceremony at his sister’s home seconds after Rossello officially stepped down.

Then followed bitter jockeying among officials and politicians of their New Progressive Party, which dominates both chambers of the legislature.

Pierluisi’s first remarks as “governor” implied he would accept a Senate vote, but late Sunday, he appeared to say that the Senate’s decision on the secretary of state nomination was moot, and that he wanted judges to decide. Shortly before Monday’s Senate session, he changed tack again, saying he would respect the will of the chamber if it voted on his “incumbency.”

The landscape has been shifting rapidly, with ruling party alliances fraying. Indeed, Pierluisi’s nomination in the House overcame what that chamber’s president predicted to be insurmountable resistance.

Reluctant Stand-In

If the Senate gets its way in court, the real governor might turn out to be Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, who doesn’t want the job and has said she would take it only as a constitutional responsibility.

The chaos is weighing on the U.S. commonwealth’s fragile economy, its record bankruptcy and the prospects of federal aid to rebuild from 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

All the major players in the drama -- Pierluisi, Vazquez and Senate President Rivera Schatz -- belong to the New Progressive Party, which many protesters thought they were ousting when they drove Rossello from office. The party dominates both chambers of the legislature and the governorship.

But Puerto Ricans say they’re fed up with the status quo, under which free-spending and corrupt politicians helped the island of 3.2 million amass $74 billion in debt, all the while overseeing a collapse of the economy that spurred an exodus to the mainland. They also blame the Popular Democratic Party, the main opposition, which was in power during many years of misspending.

It wasn’t clear which governor might satisfy protesters who flooded Old San Juan’s cobbled streets, leaving behind graffiti reading “Pierluisi, you’re next!” and “No to Wanda.”

Gustavo Velez, a Guaynabo economist and head of consulting firm Inteligencia Economica, said it may be premature to declare the establishment’s end.

“Its legitimacy is really undermined, but at this point, there are no feasible political options, nor an effective leader to replace the traditional ones,” said Velez.

Much could turn on the influence of the senate president, Rivera Schatz, a New Progressive stalwart running for governor in 2020. In a fiery speech Thursday, he said Pierluisi was “Puerto Rico’s public enemy No. 1.” He has also been an outspoken critic of Justice Secretary Vazquez.

At the heart of the resistance to Pierluisi is his role in creating a federal oversight board trying to enforce austerity to help restructure the debt. As Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in the U.S. House from 2009 to 2017, Pierluisi championed a law called Promesa that permitted a path to bankruptcy court but also installed the board. Then, Pierluisi worked for O’Neill & Borges LLC, the board’s on-island law firm.

Pierluisi’s critics said the work is a conflict of interest, which he denies. He says he never wanted the board, but accepted it as part of a tough negotiation that brought other benefits.

The leadership crisis began July 13, when Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marin, who was among the Rossello confidants who sent scabrous messages, was among the first to resign -- a gesture meant to save the administration when it still seemed salvageable. Swelling street protests soon made Rossello’s own job untenable.

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