Bumpy ride for Justice Dept. as politics and controversies rock the agency
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
Ever since Wanda Vázquez Garced was appointed back on Jan. 17, 2017 as secretary of the Department of Justice by then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, the agency has trembled and quaked, first as the appointment was opposed by women’s organizations due to Vázquez’s allegedly poor performance at the Women’s Advocate Office, and later over persecution of politicians such as the Popular Democratic Party’s (PDP) late president, Héctor Ferrer.
Although Vázquez, who has been serving as the non-elected governor of Puerto Rico since last summer, has had the chance to gain back trust from opponents, a series of events continuing into this week have shown the Justice Department to be in turmoil.
Here, The Star shares a timeline of some events that have put the agency’s reputation in hot water:
Hurricane donations spoiled in Patillas due to mishandling Back on Oct. 16, 2017, government officials found hidden humanitarian supplies in the town of Patillas. Former Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín and then-Justice Secretary Vázquez posted videos on their Twitter accounts to show the amount of hurricane donations that were spoiled after being left exposed under the sun and rain.
“We visited the mayor’s townhouse, [and went] to their collection center, and there was enough water, and food, and many citizens who needed these supplies. The provisions are not meant to be safe-kept or stored,” the then-Justice secretary said at the time. “We asked [PDP] Mayor Norberto Soto for remedial actions so this would not happen again and we would not lose supplies ever again.”
However, Vázquez’s video was later deleted on Jan. 18 of this year as social media users called her out for not holding anyone accountable as Justice secretary and, simultaneously, being allegedly involved with hidden hurricane donations found inside a warehouse in Ponce, which was revealed by Facebook user El León Fiscalizador.
Vázquez temporarily relieved of her duties at Justice due to OPFEI charge On Nov. 28, 2018, the then-Justice secretary had to vacate her post temporarily as the Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor Panel (OPFEI by its Spanish acronym) reported she allegedly intervened inappropriately in a case in which the home of her daughter and son-in-law was robbed by Tyrone Torres Betancourt, who was later sentenced to 15 years in prison.
During the investigation, it was also revealed that her daughter’s husband, Kelvin Carrasco Ramos, was submitted to an inhibition order by Vázquez in April 2018 when he worked as an administrative assistant in the Justice Department. According to the Government Ethics Law, the incumbent Justice secretary was not under obligation to ask for permission to appoint him, as it did not present a conflict of interest. On Dec. 7, 2018, there was no cause for arrest found against Vázquez.
“I intervened because my daughter was a victim and, as a mother of a victim, she had every right to have my support and advice,” she said this week during a press conference in which she defended her dismissal of former Justice Secretary Denisse Longo Quiñones, who allegedly intervened three times in a federal investigation in which her mother, former interim Health Secretary Concepción Quiñones de Longo, was involved.
No probes into missing relief supplies, suspect medical cannabis licenses On July 24, 2019, a blog post by journalist Sandra Rodríguez Cotto revealed screenshots from a WhatsApp chat between Vázquez and former La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Raúl Maldonado in which she declined to investigate a case referred by him involving missing truck containers with humanitarian supplies for Hurricane Maria victims.
“I was sent a draft statement from her office about the [container] reports. I do not hold the elements to have an opinion about it,” Vázquez said in the chat. “I understand that the OSG should reveal the results to the people. I do not know the methodology or the process involved. In fact, if there is no criminal conduct, it should not be referred to Justice.”
Rodríguez Cotto also posted official documents showing that Vázquez knew about an influence-peddling scheme involving the Health Department’s Medical Cannabis Regulatory Board, as certain advisers from La Fortaleza, along with lawyers María Palau Abasolo and her husband José Giovanni Ojeda Rodríguez, lobbied for particular medical businesses to acquire licenses.
“The documents find that the married couple tried and pressured to give away licenses for medical cannabis center operation to 69 businesses involved with Ojeda Rodríguez’s interests,” Rodríguez Cotto wrote.
Likewise, she wrote that then-Medical Cannabis Regulatory Board Director Antonio Quilinchini was pressured to provide medical cannabis center operation licenses without the required procedure, leading him to report such anomalies to then-Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, who later referred the case to Maldonado. Maldonado later reported it to Rosselló, but the governor dismissed the issue as a rumor.
Vázquez becomes a non-elected governor As Rosselló announced his resignation on Aug. 2, 2019, designated Secretary of State Pedro Pierluisi was the one who was sworn in as governor.
However, after the island Supreme Court determined the appointment to be unconstitutional due to the Senate hanging up Pierluisi’s nomination, on Aug. 8 Vázquez became the next in line to become governor. Now governor, on Aug. 19 she appointed Longo Quiñones as Justice secretary.
Lack of transparency ascribed to Longo Quiñones Since Longo Quiñones was confirmed on Oct. 3, 2019, she had been under controversy over issues of transparency in disseminating public information. On March 4, she issued an internal memo that established procedures that allowed state agencies to take over three weeks to hand over public information.
The memo, which used the Transparency and Expedited Procedure for Access to Public Information Act as a reference, was heavily criticized by members of the press and legislators on the grounds that it diluted public accountability and restricted the constitutional right to freedom of speech. A day later, the memo was back-shelved.
Longo Quiñones criticizes OPFEI on Telegram chat analysis On Feb. 14, Longo Quiñones questioned OPFEI’s performance after the Justice Department was criticized for its Telegram chat report. Longo Quiñones said the impression the agency got was that prosecutors did not understand the conclusions of law contained in the report.
“In the report we signed, they mentioned and detailed white-collar crimes, which are understood through a detailed and complex analysis of all the direct and circumstantial evidence,” she said. “Contrary to the limitations imposed by the OPFEI, the analysis of the Department of Justice addresses not only what was said or shared in the Chat WRF, but a criminal evaluation of what the behavior evidenced in the Chat WRF revealed. The mere participation in the chat does not establish the crimes considered; what the chat does is that it corroborates the relationship between the participants of identified crimes. That conduct was corroborated through interviews and the evidence gathered by Justice.”
Swift finale for interim Justice secretary Burgos As Longo Quiñones was dismissed from Justice for allegedly intervening in a fraud investigation in the Health Department she was prohibited from participating in as her mother was under observation, it also resulted in Wandymar Burgos’ having her resignation as interim Justice secretary approved by Vázquez on Thursday as interim secretary for stopping an agent from handing over file reports to the OPFEI, as the panel determined in a resolution that there was no need to do so as long as the Justice Department had copies of the documents pending evaluation.
“I have my head held up my high,” Burgos said in her letter of resignation. “All my actions have been motivated by my ethical and upstanding work style.”
Burgos held the position for less than a week, after several legislators from the majority New Progressive Party threatened to vote against her nomination and demanded she step down. After Vázquez approved Burgos’ resignation, she appointed Inés Carrau Martínez as interim Justice secretary.
“I’m grateful that governor Wanda Vázquez has bestowed trust in me to temporarily occupy the position of secretary of the Department of Justice and lead our Department forward,” Carrau Martínez said. “I have complete trust … that the prosecutors, lawyers, attorneys, recorders and all personnel who work here will continue to keep investigations on course.”