Corruption Charges Filed Against Top Puerto Rico Officials
NOEL KING, HOST:
Puerto Rico's government is in crisis. Yesterday, federal prosecutors filed corruption charges against two former top officials in the administration of Governor Ricardo Rossello. Now, people are calling on the governor to resign - one of them is the U.S. congressman charged with overseeing Puerto Rico.
NPR's Adrian Florido reports the charges come at a very politically sensitive time for the island's government.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The charges were filed against Puerto Rico's former education secretary, Julia Keleher, and Angela Avila-Marrero, former head of the island's health insurance administration. Both women recently resigned their posts amid talk of ongoing federal probes. The indictment announced Wednesday accuses them of improperly steering contracts to private companies run by politically connected contractors, or in the case of the education secretary, personal friends.
The U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico, Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, spoke at a press conference in San Juan.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
ROSA EMILIA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: Both Keleher and Avila-Marrero took advantage of their privileged positions as agency chiefs, Rodriguez said. They defrauded the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments in a scheme surpassing $15.5 million. Rodriguez said neither woman personally benefited from the schemes, but the contractors, who were also charged, did. While Governor Ricardo Rossello was not directly implicated, the charges so rocked his administration that he cut short a European vacation and flew home. Raul Grijalva, the Arizona congressman who chairs the committee that oversees Puerto Rico, called on the governor to resign.
The indictments were such a big deal because they fly in the face of the squeaky clean image that Governor Rossello has been trying to project for his administration - partly because he wants Puerto Rico to become a state, but especially because President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused island officials of being corrupt as a way to justify withholding disaster recovery money the island still needs to rebuild from Hurricane Maria.
FELIX CORDOVA: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: Felix Cordova is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a political analyst. And he says the corruption is terrible, but as sad as it is for Puerto Rico's image, it's also a reality.
CORDOVA: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: No one is proud of the corruption, Cordova says, it has demoralized Puerto Ricans. But many people on the island said they were not surprised by the charges. That's because, faced with a dismal economy and budget cuts that have slashed basic services, the government has been hiring private companies to administer things like health care, like education and schools.
CORDOVA: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: Privatizing public services introduces a profit motive, Cordova says, which makes it easier for corruption to flourish. Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.