Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans shut down a major highway in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this week in the largest of nearly two weeks of consecutive protests calling for embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to step down. The historic demonstrations follow the release of a private chat on the Telegram app that showed Rosselló and his closest allies denigrating everyone from Hurricane Maria victims to Ricky Martin to political opponents, journalists and members of their party. The "Rickyleaks" backlash has also come amid a political corruption scandal involving allegations of financial fraud by former members of Rosselló's government. All this as Puerto Rico still struggles to recover from the devasation of Hurricane Maria.
In the face of such unrest and calls for his resignation, the governor has apologized several times but vowed he's “more committed than ever to work for Puerto Rico.”
So far, Rosselló’s only concession has been to resign as president of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) and drop his re-election bid for 2020. In an announcement Sunday, he said he’s willing to undergo an impeachment trial by the legislative branch, where his party has the majority.
On Tuesday morning, some of the 11 participants in the leaked chat were ordered to surrender their phones after Puerto Rico’s Justice Department issued a search warrant as part of an investigation. That has raised the possibility of future indictments.
Here’s a recap on how Puerto Rico got here and possible scenarios on what to expect in the future.
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What’s the scandal?
Developments have been fast-moving since the arrests of several former members of Rosselló's administration earlier this month, especially after Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) published the 889-page chat that drew attention from news outlets in the United States and worldwide.
On July 10, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary Julia Keleher, former Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration head Ángela Ávila-Marrero and four other people were arrested by the FBI on charges of steering federal funds to politically connected contractors.
The six people arrested in the alleged $15.5 million fraud are facing 32 counts of money laundering and other charges, according to Puerto Rico's U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez.
Federal officials said $13 million was spent inappropriately by the Department of Education and the other $2.5 million by the Health Insurance Administration between 2017 and 2019.
One day later, on July 11, a handful of pages from the private group chat were leaked with rumors that there were many more to come. In these pages, Gov. Rosselló called former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, also Puerto Rican, the Spanish word for “whore.” The insult stemmed from Rosselló being upset that Mark-Viverito had criticized DNC chairman Tom Pérez’s support for Puerto Rico’s statehood. Referring to the oversight board that manages the island's finances, Rosselló also wrote, "go f--- yourself."
Weeks before that leak, the son of Puerto Rico’s former treasury secretary, Raúl Maldonado, Jr., had written on Facebook about the existence of a chat where Rosselló behaved as a “corrupt person.” Future disclosures would provide evidence for his case.
Rosselló, who was on a family vacation in France when the first stories broke over the leaks, returned to the island to face the backlash in a news conference at the executive mansion.
“I’m also human and I err,” Rosselló said in his first public appearance asking for forgiveness.
That night, the governor was asked by a CPI journalist if he believed the remainder of the chats rumored to exist should be published. The governor said the messages had been deleted but didn’t remember when and by whom.
Two days later, on July 13, CPI published 889 pages of the chat, “War Room Fortaleza,” that revealed more sexist, homophobic, machista, racist and violent slurs.
The conversations that took place from late November 2018 to January 2019 displayed several efforts from Rosselló and his allies to discredit, harm reputations and remove from their jobs political figures like opposition House Rep. Manuel Natal, opposition Sen. Juan Dalmau’s wife, former head of the statistics institute Mario Marazzi and the federal monitor of the police Arnaldo Claudio.
Sen. Juan Dalmau, from the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, in Spanish), told NBC “Rosselló’s tenure is over,” and argued the chats show three "very serious" potential crimes.
“There’s evidence of some public official’s interest to get rid of police monitor Arnaldo Claudio who, by the way, was appointed by the federal government. They see him as an inconvenience for their agendas,” Sen. Dalmau said.
He said there was also an exchange about his wife, in which Rosselló and his allies suggest she be replaced by someone in their party. In the discussion, a payroll document of Dalmau’s wife from the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions, where she works, is shared and questioned by the governor and his peers. “We should give this position to a member of the PNP,” Rosselló’s former media consultant Carlos Bermúdez said.
Finally, Dalmau said, Rosselló and his colleagues "shared privileged information with private sector officials in the chat for them to benefit from it.”
Dalmau highlighted the three conversations as potential crimes from a list of 18 that was introduced in the House by Rep. Dennis Márquez, from his party, as a first step to begin Rosselló's impeachment. “For me, those three may constitute crimes,” Dalmau said.
In his last news conference to date, Rosselló said, "I have not committed any illegal acts, I only committed improper acts."
Dalmau is convinced that “Rosselló has to go, impeached or not” and that the governor’s party “needs to act firmly because Rosselló lost legitimacy.”
In the infamous group chat, Elías Sánchez-Sifonte, Rosselló’s former campaign manager and right hand, two media consultants and a publicist participated in discussions, made suggestions and gave instructions on how to handle government affairs.
Sánchez-Sifonte, in fact, is the subject of a story published by CPI last Friday that alleges a multi-million dollar corruption network behind the chat conversations.
If the governor doesn't resign, can he be impeached?
Yes. Puerto Rico’s constitution establishes not only that a governor can resign, but they can also be impeached.
According to the constitution’s Section 21, Article III, the House has the sole power of initiating an impeachment if two-thirds of its members vote to indict the governor. The Senate would then hold a trial, presided over by Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court chief justice, where the sentence’s only outcome would be the removal of the governor.
The vacant position would then be assumed by the secretary of state which, like 16 other positions in the executive branch, is also vacant right now. Next in line would be the head of the island's justice department.
The House hasn’t started the process, but its speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez said three lawyers are analyzing the situation and the documents to see whether an impeachment process should be started. The decision might come as soon as this Wednesday, according to Méndez.
An impeachment “is not a legal procedure, it’s a political procedure, meaning that the same guarantees and procedures from a legal case don’t apply,” Efrén Rivera-Ramos from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law told NBC.
“If there’s evidence to prosecute the public official, that’d be done in a separate legal and ordinary procedure in our courts” since “the sentence (in the impeachment trial) wouldn’t entail anything but only removing the official from their post. It’s not a criminal trial,” Rivera-Ramos said.
For the same reason, in an impeachment trial there’s no need for evidence of a crime per se, Rivera-Ramos explained. “The House can start the process whenever they want.”
In Puerto Rico, no governor has ever stepped down or faced an impeachment trial.
Who is still supporting Ricardo Rosselló?
If a massive display of hundreds of thousands of people marching and protesting for the governor’s resignation is not enough, members of Rosselló's party, former governors, internationally-known stars such as singer Ricky Martin, trap artist Bad Bunny, rapper Residente, actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, members of Congress, Democratic presidential candidates and more have asked him to step down.
The governor, in a rare appearance on Fox News, spoke to Shepard Smith and failed to name someone who supports him. Rosselló mentioned the mayor of San Sebastián, Javier Jiménez, who later told a newspaper he didn’t support the governor. However, there are a few people still supporting him, at least publicly.
House Deputy Speaker Rep. Lourdes Ramos is a fervent advocate of Rosselló. “I trust the governor,” she told NBC last week.
“I know him since he was a kid. I know his family. I know his upbringing. And when he said he regretted everything, I believed him, and no one can tell me what to think. I have that right,” Ramos said.
The lawmaker from Rosselló’s party said last week that “we’re giving the governor the time and space he asked us to evaluate the situation.”
She also believes the chat shows no evidence of criminal activity, so she doesn’t agree with an impeachment process. “I’m not a lawyer, but the caucus consensus is that there are no crimes,” she said back then.
On Sunday, after Rosselló’s announcement to step down as president of the party and drop his re-election bid for 2020, Ramos’ press office sent a written statement.
“The lawmaker, who doesn’t endorse an impeachment process, pointed that several lawyers have commented the inexistence of crimes that link the governor with corruption acts, serious felony or moral deprivation, as the Constitution requires (to impeach a governor),” the statement reads.
However, Ramos, like Speaker Méndez, is waiting for the three lawyers to provide their analysis on whether to pursue an impeachment process.
Would there be votes to impeach Rosselló?
House Rep. José “Quiquito” Meléndez, a lawyer and member of the governor’s party, believes “the legislative branch has the votes to impeach the governor.”
Puerto Rico’s House has 51 seats, which means 34 votes are needed to reach the two-thirds required to file a political indictment and start the trial in the Senate.
From the 51 seats, 34 are controlled by the PNP, 15 by the Popular Democratic Party (PPD, in Spanish), one by the PIP and one by an independent candidate.
“There’ll always be three or four people who’ll support the governor,” Meléndez told NBC, referring to some of his peers in the party, like Rep. Ramos.
“The people’s demands are far much bigger and the governor’s announcement on Sunday only fueled the fire even more,” Mélendez said.
Meléndez believes the governor should step down, but if that doesn’t happen, he’s confident the House will proceed to begin the impeachment.
As for the Senate, Dalmau won’t say if they have the votes in favor of impeaching Rosselló because, "I can't speak for my colleagues." But he’s not pleased with how the legislative branch has handled the situation.
“This hasn’t been addressed promptly, as it should have,” Dalmau said.
Out of 30 seats in the Senate, 21 belong to the PNP, seven to the PPD, one to the PIP and one to an independent senator. For a sentence of impeachment to pass, three-quarters or 23 members of the Senate have to vote for it.
Why is all this such a big deal for Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico has been stuck in an economic recession since 2006. In September 2017, the island was obliterated by Hurricane Maria, after also taking a hit from Hurricane Irma. Its government estimated $139 billion would be needed to recover from the disaster.
President Donald Trump has claimed his administration handed Puerto Rico’s government $92 billion for relief, which they have “squandered away or wasted.” The figure the president repeatedly mentions is incorrect. Puerto Rico has received $13 billion so far from $42.5 billion assigned for relief efforts.
The federal government has estimated that $92 billion is the amount the island could be allotted over the next 20 years.
Trump signed a bill last month allocating $19 billion for Puerto Rico and other states battered by natural disasters after a long feud in Congress.
But after the president’s repeated remarks on corruption in the island’s government, the scandal jeopardizes that much needed aid, Dalmau and Meléndez believe.
“Congress has had an anemic attitude to provide relief funds to Puerto Rico and the governor’s actions showed he and his allies tried to profit from that [...] and, naturally, that affects Puerto Rico,” he said.
On top of that, the senator says that because of this situation, “Puerto Rico is being portrayed to the world as an unstable and place of unrest” and it’s causing losses in tourism, which the island desperately needs.
Last week, several cruise ships didn’t anchor in Puerto Rico, resulting in a drop of 15,000 tourists in Old San Juan and an economic hit of around $2.5 million.