Allegations include illicit use of public services, retaliation against an official in case involving delivery of supplies to earthquake victims
SAN JUAN – Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced faces a criminal investigation by the Puerto Rico Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor's Panel (Opfei by its Spanish initials) into her role in alleged irregularities involving the handling of the distribution of relief supplies for the victims of the earthquakes that devastated the southwestern part of the island earlier this year.
The probe occurs a little more than two weeks before an Aug. 9 primary election in which the governor is vying to be the New Progressive Party (NPP) standard-bearer in the November general election , and nearly a year after her predecessor, former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, resigned amid mounting massive protests over corruption in his administration and his participation in an offensive Telegram chat.
The decision by Opfei, announced on Monday, to proceed with the probe of the governor as well as an NPP senator and former administration officials has sparked calls by opposition party leaders for the impeachment of Vázquez.
Opfei determined that a preliminary probe and criminal referrals submitted earlier this month by former Puerto Rico Justice Department Dennise Longo Quiñones had uncovered enough evidence meriting a full investigation by the panel on the alleged irregularities involving supply warehouses managed by the Socioeconomic Development Administration (Adsef).
The panel appointed attorney Leticia Pabón Ortíz to be the special independent prosecutor and attorney Miguel A. Colon Ortia to be chief prosecutor in the case, which includes allegations that the governor was involved in the illicit use of pub lic services, retaliated against an official acting against corruption, and violated ethical norms.
The commonwealth Justice Department report — signed by district attorney Phoebe Isales Forsythe, director of the agency's Comptroller's Affairs and Public Integrity Division, and assistant prosecutor Pedro Tomás Berrias Lara — also targeted for criminal investigation a former chief of staff for the governor, three former top Adsef officials, two NPP senators and the husband of one of those senators.
'Sufficient cause' for Opfei probe
The panel resolution —Signed by Opfei chairwoman Nydia Cotto Vives and panel member Rubén Vélez Torres but not by the other panel member Ygrí Rivera Sánchez — states that there is “sufficient cause” for the criminal investigation of Gov. Vazquez as well as of NPP Sen. Evelyn Vázquez Nieves.
The other targets of the Opfei criminal probe include the governor's former Chief of Staff Antonio L. Pabón Bathe, former Adsef Administrator Surima Quiñones Suárez, former Adsef Deputy Administrator José A. Galarza Vargas, and former Adsef Operational Services Administrator Maria Teresa Zayas Qierbolini.
The panel decided not to proceed with criminal referrals involving NPP Sen. Nelson Cruz Santiago and Peter Muller Maldonado, the husband of Sen. Vázquez.
The two Opfei prosecutors assigned to the case have 90 days to complete their probe, the panel said.
“After a detailed and exhaustive evaluation of the Preliminary Investigation Report submitted by the [Puerto Rico] Justice Department, [Opfei] understands that said probe demonstrated sufficient cause for an in-depth investigation to be carried out into the events indicated in said referrals, ”the panel said in a press release announcing its determination to proceed with the case. “In consideration of the aforementioned, the panel accepted the Justice Department recommendation that a special independent prosecutor be named… upon concluding that there exists sufficient cause to order that a thorough investigation be carried out into the breaches of the law attributed to the officials who were referred. ”
Justice referrals originally blocked
The Justice Department prosecutors signed off on the criminal referrals to Opfei on July 3 — the same day Longo, a former federal prosecutor, resigned as Justice Secretary after the governor requested her exit from the agency. While the governor initially downplayed Longo's departure, the former Justice Secretary later said that the governor requested her resignation after she found out about the referrals.
The following Monday, July 6, Acting Justice Secretary Wandymar Burgos Vargas blocked the delivery of the criminal referrals to Opfei headquarters in Hato Rey, alleging that she found out about the referrals through an email and did not have the opportunity to examine them because she was in the midst of a transition process.
After press reports of Burgos' action on July 7, Opfei reported that it had received the referrals later that day. During a morning press conference, Gov. Vázquez defended the blocking of the referrals, claiming that these were “done on the run and in the dark of night,” adding that Burgos, as the new Justice Secretary, had the right to review and make a determination on the referrals before being sent to Opfei.
“I have nothing to fear,” the governor said during the July 7 press conference. “Although everyone knows the history of [Opfei]… and that the people of Puerto Rico have witnessed what they are capable of doing, I have no doubt, no fear whatsoever, over the referrals being sent today to [Opfei].”  Burgos resigned a day later after one of the prosecutors revealed that she had been sent copies of the referral reports. Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz had called for her resignation and had vowed to block her confirmation.
During the same press conference, Vázquez claimed that she had fired Longo because the former Justice Secretary had “improperly intervened” in a federal investigation involving Medicaid funding at the Puerto Rico Health Department. Longo's mother, Concepción Quiñones de Longo, resigned as acting Health Secretary on March 26. Quiñones de Longo later claimed that she resigned because she was being forced by Vázquez administration officials to approve emergency contracts for the purchases of ventilators and a million Covid-19 test kits for undue amounts of money.
Quiñones de Longo's denunciation led the Puerto Rico House of Representatives' Health Committee to hold hearings and probe the hiring two local firms, 313 LLC and Apex general Contractors, as intermediaries to purchase nearly $ 40 million in Covid-19 test kits from overseas companies. After a local bank stopped a commonwealth Treasury Department transfer of funds to an Australian company to pay for the test kits upon identifying an irregularity in the transaction, Gov. Vázquez canceled the contracts on April 16.
Nonetheless, the House committee proceeded with the investigation into the origin of the contracts, which were finalized outside the bidding process due to the Covid-19 emergency declaration by the governor. Late last month, the committee issued a report concluding that there were “irregularities, negligence and violations to laws and established regulations” regarding the issuing of the contracts.
The committee report recommended a series of criminal referrals to local and federal law- enforcement agencies involving La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Antonio Pabón Battle and top administration officials in the Health, Treasury, Budget & Management Office departments, the Emergency Management & Disaster Administration Bureau, Apex and 313 LLC executives, and Dr. Segundo Rodríguez Quilinchini, coordinator of the governor's Covid-19 medical task force.
Governor blames election politics
Gov. Vázquez has attributed the House committee report referrals and the Opfei probe to efforts by supporters of former Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, her contender in the Aug. 9 primary election for the NPP gubernatorial nomination, to tarnish her image. Pierluisi briefly served as governor upon Rosselló leaving office on Aug. 2, 2019 before the Puerto Rico Supreme Court determined a few days later his swearing in was unconstitutional because his appointment as Secretary of State had not been fully approved by the Legislative Assembly.  Then-Justice Secretary Vázquez, in the line of succession, was promptly sworn into office only hours after the court decision on Aug. 7, 2019.
On Tuesday, the Vázquez administration made good on the governor's threat to file an ethics complaint against Longo for her alleged role in the federal Medicaid investigation, as a spokeswoman for the commonwealth Government Ethics Office reportedly confirmed that such a complaint had been received. Federal officials have not made any mention of the alleged intervention by Longo into the federal probe.
In fact, in a press release issued Tuesday, Opfei said that the Justice Department preliminary probe and referrals approved by Longo concurred with three previous investigations into irregularities in the Adsef food and supply distribution program carried out between January and February. The investigations were sparked by a YouTube video posted in mid-January by a Ponce citizen denouncing that food and supplies were holed up in a warehouse in that city La Guancha sector while victims of the strong earthquakes that were striking the area then were suffering shortages.
Longo had said earlier this month that Justice Department Public Integrity Division prosecutors had been investigating the case since January (as case number 2020-31-102-00007), and that after having interviewed witnesses and reviewed the evidence they had concluded as early as March 11 that the governor and other officials in her administration had become targets of the probe.
“All of the investigations concur in the existence of evidence that could confirm violations to law and regulations. The information and evidence in all of these instances were sustained through interviews and documents, ”the Opfei press release said, noting that the case could involve“ possible infractions to state and federal laws. ”
Regarding commonwealth law, Opfei said that there could be possible violations to Penal Code Article 252 penalizing illicit use of public employment and services, and Article 4.2 of the Anticorruption Code for a New Puerto Rico, which penalizes the carrying out of reprisals against those who denounce acts of corruption.
The commonwealth Justice Department report cited the Article 4.2 violation in the firing of former Family Secretary Glorimar Andújar, who summarily suspended former Adsef Administrator Quiñones after an agency probe concluded that she was allegedly using supplies to reward NPP supporters. Andújar was removed from office after refusing pressures from La Fortaleza governor's mansion to reinstate Quiñones, according to the criminal referrals cited by Opfei.
On Wednesday, the governor filed a motion before Opfei to dismiss the case, alleging the Justice Department probe was “Irregular” and being conducted hastily.
'Undue pressures' by La Fortaleza
The panel said that the commonwealth Justice Department had collected enough evidence to “demonstrate” the “interest of La Fortaleza to go above the decision by the Family Secretary. ”
“ From the record forwarded by [the Justice Department] there [is evidence of] “undue pressures” from La Fortaleza to revoke the summary suspension, ”Opfei said in its press release.
According to the panel, an initial “analysis” was conducted by attorney Corallys Veguilla Torres, of the Family Department's Legal Division, who on Jan. 16 recommended the suspension of Quiñones due to “irregularities and violations to laws and regulations,” and called for an administrative investigation. Attorney Ernie Cabán, a former special independent prosecutor, issued a second “analysis” of the case on Jan. 22 in which he concluded that there could have been “irregularities and deviation from procedures” in the “possible intervention of politicians in the delivery of food supplies. ”
Attorney Ismael J. Ortiz Roldán conducted a third investigation in the case in which I have obtained evidence involving photographs, videos, email messages, Facebook page material, and“ apparent ”screenshots of text messages. I've concluded that violations involving the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) could have been committed.
While opposition party leaders, including the Popular Democratic Party, the Citizen Victory Movement, and the Hostos National Independence Movement, have called on House NPP majority lawmakers to start an impeachment inquiry against the governor, House Speaker Carlos Méndez has resisted the move.
In a Twitter message on Tuesday, Cabán said that if the Opfei probe is not concluded by 90 days, they can request an additional 90 days to complete the task, which would make it possible that the case could continue into next year.
In its press release, Opfei said that in the absence of the panel, the Justice Department “would have already” filed the criminal charges . The panel said that its role is to have the evidence “pass through an additional sieve that is much more rigorous, objective, impartial and free of influences to assess the referred evidence, and determine if charges are finally presented by a special prosecutor” before the San Juan Superior Court.
Not first time Vázquez in Opfei's sights
This week's decision by Opfei to address a criminal referral against Gov. Vazquez would not be a first for her. In November 2017, Opfei announced it would level three charges against then Justice Secretary Vázquez for violations of the Government Ethics Law and the Criminal Code for her alleged undue intervention in a case in which her daughter and son-in-law were victims of a home -invasion robbery. However, in December 2018, Judge Yazdel Ramos Colón exonerated her of having committed any ethical violations due to insufficient evidence.
Vázquez had previously submitted to Opfei a recommendation for the activation of multiple prosecutors for a leaked WhatsApp chat group scandal involving the 2016 general election, but the panel only appointed a prosecutor for the former State Elections Commission President Rafael Ramos Sáenz, and then decided to open an “investigation” against her.
Her predecessor, former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, became the first elected Puerto Rico governor to resign on July 24, 2019, after the Puerto Rico House of Representatives-appointed panel of jurists submitted a report in which the three panel members unanimously concluded that Rosselló committed impeachable crimes related to his participation in controversial Telegram chats, whose disclosure earlier that month led to weeks of massive protests calling for his resignation.
The panel of jurists said that said impeachable crimes included the panel embezzlement, negligence in carrying out his duty as governor, and illicit use of public employment and services. The content of the Telegram chat, which caused general public outrage, included exchanges in which members of the governor's inner circle and lobbyists made fun of Hurricane Maria victims, used profanity-laden speech to insult women and gays, included threats of physical violence against certain reporters and opposition politicians and included discussion of official government business with lobbyists.