SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The potential next governor of Puerto Rico defended himself Friday against questions about conflicts of interest that threatened to derail his confirmation and leave the island in political turmoil after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s expected 5 p.m. departure.
Former congressional representative Pedro Pierluisi sat alone as he faced more than two dozen legislators in the first of two public hearings being held to debate his selection as secretary of state, who would assume the governorship if the post is vacant.
Lawmakers, and Pierluisi himself, have expressed concern that the continuing political uncertainty would damage Puerto Rico’s efforts to get federal funds to recover from 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria and to deal with an economic crisis.
But several legislators have accused Pierluisi of a conflict of interest because he worked for a law firm that represents a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances, a body that has repeatedly clashed with local officials over demands for austerity measures.
Pierluisi, whose brother-in-law is the board’s chairman, tried to dispel those concerns in his opening remarks.
“Who better than me to advocate for our people before the board? Who better than me to facilitate the process that will force the board to leave? That is what we all want,” he said.
The board was created by Congress to oversee the restructuring of more than $70 billion in public debt after Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy.
Pierluisi told lawmakers he is against several austerity measures demanded by the board, including layoffs of public employees and eliminating a Christmas bonus.
He said he supports public-private partnerships and the privatization of the island’s public power company.
“The people want a change, and I don’t blame them,” he said.
As legislators continued to press him on his work as an attorney for the federal control board, Pierluisi said, “Antes fui abogado, y qué? Ese conocimiento es bueno. Va a ser bueno para Puerto Rico.”
Current and former government officials packed the room where the House committee was holding the hearing, with a potential constitutional crisis looming if he is not confirmed.
If he is rejected, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez automatically becomes governor as the next in the order of succession. She has said she would accept the job, but unwillingly.
Some lawmakers said a House vote for Pierluisi would count as confirmation and allow him to assume the governorship. Opponents said he requires Senate approval, too, and they would sue to stop him becoming governor without that.
Rep. Rafael Hernández, a leader among opposition legislators, said he believes a “yes” vote by the House for Pierluisi on Friday would mean Vázquez becomes governor at 5 p.m. and Pierluisi her secretary of state.
He said he would sue to stop any attempt to make Pierluisi governor, throwing the island into even more uncertainty.
Another obstacle for Pierluisi is Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who has said he would not vote for Rosselló’s nominee and wants to run for governor himself next year. Several legislators have said they prefer Rivera Schatz over Pierluisi, but the Senate leader is a powerful figure deeply associated with Puerto Rico’s political and business elite and his elevation to the governorship could re-ignite popular outrage.
Rivera Schatz delivered a scathing attack on his critics Thursday afternoon and said the Senate would hold a hearing on Pierluisi on Monday.
Pierluisi, who took a leave of absence from the law firm, has previously said that much work remains to be done to recover the trust of federal authorities, Congress and the people of Puerto Rico as it also struggles to recover from Hurricane .
Pierluisi was Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress from 2009 to 2017 and then ran against Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in the 2016 primaries and lost. He also served as justice secretary under Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, when he was governor.
Political infighting and paralysis has followed a wave of street protests against Rosselló, who joins more than a dozen government officials who have resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat in which they made fun of women, gay people and hurricane victims.
Vega Ramos of the opposition Popular Democratic Party questioned during Friday’s hearing whether legislators were supposed to be approving a secretary of state or a governor.
“What are we doing this morning?” he demanded. “Clarify this for us and for our people.”