Resignations, dismissals galore in PR gov’t over 4-year term
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
The New Progressive Party (NPP)-led Puerto Rico government has not only been susceptible to hurricanes, earthquakes and a global pandemic, but also to numerous resignations and dismissals of heads of agencies throughout the four-year term that is now drawing to a close.
As the island is on the verge of a new government on Jan. 2, the current quadrennium has been shaped by historic changes in command within days of each other at leading government entities. Below, the Star looks at some of the most significant shifts and determinations of the past four years.
For the first time, Puerto Rico had three governors during a four-year period. On one hand, former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, who was elected in 2016 by almost 42 percent of the island’s voters, announced his resignation in July 24, 2019 after citizens protested for 15 consecutive days in front of the executive mansion on Calle de La Fortaleza in Old San Juan after the Center for Investigative Journalism released an 889-page Telegram chat log that not only contained offensive remarks from officials, advisers and the governor himself, but also contained an alleged corruption scheme from within La Fortaleza.
Then, now-NPP gubernatorial candidate Pedro Pierluisi was sworn in as governor on Aug. 2, 2019 as Rosselló appointed him as designated secretary of State, yet Pierluisi’s five-day-long governance came to end after the Puerto Rico Supreme Court unanimously ruled his appointment as governor unconstitutional due to the former resident commissioner not having been ratified by both the island House of Representatives and Senate.
On Aug. 8, 2019, then-Justice (DOJ) Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced was sworn in as governor, her post being the next in line according to the Puerto Rico Constitution.
Department of Education (DE)
On April 1, 2019, Julia Keleher quit as DE secretary and three days later resigned from a $250,000 annual contract as a member of the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, as confirmed by then-La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Ricardo Llerandi. A little over three months later, on July 10, 2019, Keleher was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation along with five other public officials for wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering that reached $15.5 million.
Eleuterio Álamo was appointed DE interim secretary on April 4, 2019 by then-governor Rosselló, but his appointment was withdrawn; on June 24, 2019, current DE Secretary Eligio Hernández, who was referred to as Keleher’s left hand by Popular Democratic Party Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, was confirmed by a Senate majority.
Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)
On Nov. 17, 2017, 27 days after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, PREPA Executive Director Ricardo Ramos resigned amid criticism for granting a $300 million contract to Whitefish Energy, a Montana-based electric power company with only two permanent employees, to repair the island’s flattened electrical grid.
Justo González, who became the designated executive director in charge of PREPA before Walter Higgins III was appointed by Rosselló on March 20, 2018, welcomed retirement on June 22, 2018, two days after the Law to Transform Puerto Rico’s Electric Power, which would lead PREPA into privatization, was signed. On July 7, 2018, Higgins III resigned after the DOJ warned PREPA’s governing board that the agreed upon productivity bonus that would raise his annual salary to $450,000 was illegal.
However, the utility’s governing board announced that Higgins III’s successor, Rafael Díaz Granados, who was also a board member, would get a $750,000 annual salary according to an American Public Power Association formula. On July 12, 2018, Díaz Granados and five board members resigned.
José Ortiz Vázquez, who was appointed on July 18, 2018, tendered his resignation on Aug. 3 of this year after being heavily criticized for his work on the agreement to restructure the authority’s public debt and the electricity grid’s recovery. Currently, Efrán Paredes Maisonet is PREPA’s interim executive director.
Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewage Authority (PRASA)
PRASA Executive Director and Financial Oversight and Management Board Representative Eli Díaz Atienza resigned from both seats on Feb. 14 as “it was time to allow myself to consider new professional growth options in private business while steps are taken for PRASA’s change and renovation.”
Current Executive Director Doriel Pagán Crespo was confirmed by PRASA’s governing board on Feb. 25.
Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH by its Spanish initials)
Former DTRH Secretary Carlos Saavedra stepped down as then-governor Rosselló appointed him as both legal adviser and adviser on labor matters, replacing former adviser Alfonso Orona, positions in which he would have earned $138,000 annually. However, he stepped down on Aug. 2, 2019, the same day Rosselló’s resignation to the government became official.
Briseida Torres was appointed DTRH secretary on May 15, 2019; however, she resigned on June 9 of this year after the agency experienced substantial delays in paying pandemic financial aid to unemployed citizens.
On June 18, the island Senate confirmed current DTRH Secretary Carlos Rivera Santiago amid heavy criticism for his work as DOJ Deputy Secretary for Minors and Family.
Emergency Management and Disaster Administration Bureau (NMEAD by its Spanish acronym)
Former NMEAD Commissioner Abner Gómez resigned on Nov. 11, 2017, 51 days after Hurricane Maria struck the island.
On Jan. 18 of this year, Gov. Vázquez dismissed Carlos Acevedo from the same post due to controversies involving unused supplies dating back to 2018 that citizens from the city of Ponce found at an abandoned warehouse.
On June 7, Gen. José Burgos resigned as he was being investigated by the Special Independent Prosecutor’s Panel on a failed $38 million purchase for serological tests for COVID-19 from APEX General Contractors.
Currently, rescuer Nino Correa Filomeno is NMEAD’s interim commissioner.
Department of Housing (DV by its Spanish initials)
Former DV Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat was dismissed on Jan. 19 of this year by Gov. Vázquez as he allegedly was unable to provide information requested on warehouses and inventory during the earthquakes that had been rocking much of southern Puerto Rico since Dec. 28, 2019.
Since Jan. 28, Luis Fernández Trinchet has been DV secretary, in charge of Puerto Rico’s disaster relief with Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program funds.
Department of Health (DOH)
On March 13 of this year, Gov. Vázquez dismissed DOH Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado after he minimized the coronavirus pandemic and the entity confirmed the first three cases of the virus that causes COVID-19 from Italian tourists who arrived on the island from the Costa Luminosa cruise. Interim Secretary Concepción Quiñones de Longo, mother of former DOJ Secretary Denisse Longo Quiñones, was appointed soon after.
Quiñones de Longo resigned 12 days later due to alleged pressure from La Fortaleza officials to sign acquisitions for COVID-19 screening tests without proper evaluation. Lorenzo González Feliciano is the current DOH secretary.
On the other hand, two of the agency chiefs who have remained on the job since then-governor Rosselló formed his cabinet are Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Manuel Laboy and Transportation and Public Works Secretary Carlos Contreras Aponte.