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Why Puerto Rican governor’s scandal jeopardizes the island’s credibility

In Puerto Rico, demonstrators have gathered for days to demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello after hundreds of misogynistic, homophobic and crude text messages he exchanged with members of his inner circle were released. Targets included political opponents and the island’s financial oversight board. William Brangham talks to Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., about the fallout.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    An explosive political and corruption scandal is rocking the island of Puerto Rico.

    And, as William Brangham explains, it's endangering the future of the island's leader, Governor Ricardo Rossello.

  • William Brangham:

    It's been like this for days, thousands of protesters in the streets of San Juan, demanding the resignation of their governor, Ricardo Rossello.

    At times, they have been met with armed police and tear gas. the crisis engulfing the governor exploded this weekend, after a 900-page trove of text messages was leaked and published by Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism.

    The texts between Governor Rossello and members of his inner circle were repeatedly laced with misogyny, homophobia and crude jokes. Targets included political opponents and the island's financial oversight board.

    In one exchange, Governor Rossello called a former New York City councilwoman a whore. In another, the governor's chief financial officer joked about dead bodies piling up after Hurricane Maria.

    The leak led to the resignation of two members of his administration, but this scandal comes right on the heels of the indictment and arrest of two other members of the governor's Cabinet last week on fraud charges. A Justice Department investigation into federal contracts led to charges against six people, including Education Secretary Julia Keleher, who was arrested for allegedly steering millions to politically connected consultants.

    And all of this comes as President Trump and congressional Republicans continue to hammer Puerto Rican officials for their handling of the island's finances both before and after Hurricane Maria.

    The White House issued a statement saying: "The unfortunate events of the past week in Puerto Rico prove the president's concerns about mismanagement, politicization and corruption have been valid."

    Puerto Rico's finances have been controlled by an independent oversight board since 2016, and the island is trying to restructure some of its enormous debts. Rossello is asking Congress to send billions of dollars in additional federal money to support ongoing hurricane disaster relief and to support the island's Medicaid program.

    And in the past few days, Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona has called for Rossello to resign. Grijalva is the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees affairs in U.S. territories.

    And he joins me now.

    Representative, thank you very much for being on the "NewsHour."

    As I said…

  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.:

    Thank you for the invitation.

  • William Brangham:

    … you called on the governor to resign.

    He doesn't seem, according how he appeared today, that he is going to resign. Do you still want him to go, and why?

  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.:

    Well, I think, as I said earlier, my personal opinion, that he should resign, it's just that.

    It's going to be the people of Puerto Rico that elected him that help him make that decision. And I think you have reached a very, very critical and delicate point right now, as the committee that I chair looks at the PROMESA Act and how to reform that to provide better support for the people of Puerto Rico, as look at that Medicaid funding and making sure that it arrives and provides relief to the people of Puerto Rico, as we work with PREPA and make sure that utility company is running efficiently and accountable — in an accountable way.

    As we look at all those reforms that need to happen, I think you reach the point where you're feeding a narrative. And the narrative that we have heard from the Trump administration and others: We can't trust those people. They're not deserving of support.

    And we saw that through the whole relief right after the hurricane, how long and how much the people in Puerto Rico suffered because of that, 4,500-plus deaths.

    And so the list goes on. And I think, for him, as governor, if he stands in the way at this point — and I believe he does — of his country and the citizens of the United States that live on that island, if they — if they're going to be withheld in terms of support that they need, we don't want to jeopardize any mechanism to bring that relief to the people of Puerto Rico.

    And, right now, I think the central government of Puerto Rico needs to examine itself. I really believe the governor needs to examine himself as to what is the common good. And I think the common good sometimes is going to have to be the consideration of stepping aside.

  • William Brangham:

    I appreciate what you have to say, that it's really for the voters in Puerto Rico to decide Rossello's fate.

  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.:

    Exactly.

  • William Brangham:

    But it doesn't seem like he wants to go.

    And if he doesn't, doesn't that stand in the way of you persuading your fellow colleagues to grant the aid that all of Puerto Ricans say they desperately need?

  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.:

    Well, I think it complicates it in this way.

    It complicates it, in that you're going to see more demand for oversight, more controls on the part of the federal government of the relief and the assistance going to Puerto Rico. You're going to see more restrictions and more strings to any support that goes there.

    And I think that's going to complicate it, because, if we're dealing with credibility here, it's going to be hard to convince Republicans and Democrats that the central government of Puerto Rico is prepared and the agencies are prepared to effectively, in an accountable, ethical and non-corrupt way, deal with the relief that the people need.

  • William Brangham:

    You heard — I read a bit of the president's statement, which is, he's saying, in effect, you see? My criticism all along was right. The government in Puerto Rico cannot be trusted to manage their finances.

    Does the president have a point?

  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.:

    I don't think — I don't think he does. He's been saying this from the beginning.

    But it does feed his narrative. And the adage about people in glass houses certainly applies here, but the point being that I think it feeds that narrative and it feeds the narrative about control. It feeds the narrative about people not being able to take care of themselves.

    And the responsibility for giving volume to that narrative, and giving justification to Trump, unfortunately, falls squarely in the hands of this governor.

  • William Brangham:

    As you know — I would like to switch gears just for a moment — much of Washington has been consumed with…

  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    … the president's racist attack on four of your colleagues, all women of color.

    What have you been saying to your colleagues about how you, as Democrats, ought to respond?

  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.:

    I think we need to respond with a level of determination.

    I'm a first-generation American. And through whatever factors, here I am, a member of Congress, chairing a committee here. Who would have — my family wouldn't have thought it and my parents would have dreamed of this. But here I am.

    And I respect that, and I love that.

    But I think what I'm telling people, it's about determination, because I think the — what we seen and what we have heard from this president at the highest level is to encourage a division based on race in this country. And that is what wrong, and it is anti-American.

    And we have to be determined that, if we want to go in a different direction, we have to rid ourselves and cleanse ourselves of this particular malignancy that we have right now, which is divide our country based on race and hate.

    That is — and I'm talking about determination. I'm talking about the things that probably are going to get worse before they get better. But, at the end of the day, in this participatory democracy of ours, we get a chance to vote as citizens.

    And we have an opportunity to turn this around and provide a whole different direction for this country, and take us out of the morass that we're in right now, which is very painful to watch and certainly, for me and many sons and daughters of immigrants in this country, very painful to feel.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Representative Raul Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, thank you very much for your time.

  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.:

    Thank you.

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