Puerto Rico governor weighs future after protests -spokesman

A woman shouts during ongoing protests calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico July 23, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello A woman shouts during ongoing protests calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico July 23, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Nick Brown

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello was weighing his political future on Wednesday after almost two weeks of protests demanding his resignation over the publication of offensive chat messages and a corruption scandal, his spokesman said.

Rossello, a first-term governor in his first elected office, has resisted calls to step down over a scandal local media have dubbed “Rickyleaks.” Media, including El Nuevo Dacuta newspaper, cited unnamed sources as saying his resignation was imminent.

“He stated yesterday he is in a process of reflection, and listening to the people,” the governor’s spokesman Anthony Maceira said in a text message to Reuters. “Whichever decision he makes will, as always, be communicated officially.”

Protesters had cheered the reports of a possible resignation late on Tuesday but warned that Rossello’s departure would not end the demonstrations that were now entering their 12th day.

The island of 3.2 million people has been rocked by multiple crises in recent years, including a bankruptcy filing and a devastating hurricane in 2017 that killed about 3,000 people.

If Rossello steps down, his replacement as the U.S. territory’s leader would likely be Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, whom many protesters reject because of her ties to the 40-year-old governor.

A string of Rossello’s closest aides have stepped down as prosecutors investigated the scandal. The governor’s chief of staff Ricardo Llerandi resigned on Tuesday, citing concerns for the safety of his family.

The scandal erupted at about the same time as federal investigators charged two former high-ranking Puerto Rico government officials with conspiracy.

The protests in the capital San Juan were spurred by the publication on July 13 of chat messages on the messaging app Telegram, in which Rossello and aides used profane language to describe female politicians and gay Puerto Rican celebrities, including Ricky Martin.

FINANCES UNCERTAIN

The uncertainty over Rossello’s future has also complicated Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy process. The U.S. territory filed in 2017 to attempt to restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

An attorney for the federally-created oversight board currently responsible for Puerto Rico’s finances told a court hearing on Wednesday that “current events” had played a role in delaying the filing of a plan to restructure the bulk of the territory’s debt.

The attorney, Martin Bienenstock, said at the hearing in San Juan that the board was also seeking more data and creditor support and expected to file the plan in the next few weeks.

The “Rickyleaks” scandal also has led to the resignation of the head of Puerto Rico’s fiscal agency, Christian Sobrino. His interim replacement, Jose Santiago Ramos, has also said he plans to step down next month, citing the current political environment.

Puerto Rican officials on Tuesday executed search warrants for the mobile phones of Rossello’s and 11 top officials involved in the leaked message group chats.

Only Llerandi has so far said publicly he has handed in his phone.

Rossello has apologized several times for the chats and asked Puerto Ricans to give him another chance. He also has vowed not to seek re-election in 2020.

“The people are talking and I have to listen,” Rossello said in a statement on Tuesday.

But the island’s leading newspaper, as well as prominent U.S. Democratic officials and Republican President Donald Trump, have called on him to step down.

U.S. Representative Raúl Grijalva, the chairman of the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, which plays a role in overseeing U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, said a Rossello resignation would be a step forward for the island.

“The people of Puerto Rico have shown the world what can happen when a united public demands justice and accountability with a clear voice,” Grijalva said in a statement. “Now they must choose what comes next, and Congress must listen.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown; additional reporting by Marco Bello and Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan, Karen Pierog in Chicago and Rich McKay in Atlanta; writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Paul Simao)

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