just asking questions

A Puerto Rican Journalist Who Helped Expose Government Corruption on What Comes Next

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Saturday, July 13, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, known by its Spanish acronym, CPI, published a chat featuring Governor Ricardo Rosselló and other administration officials engaging in homophobic language and joking about victims of Hurricane Maria. Explaining an initial leak of the texts, Rosselló called his language a way to “relieve stress,” but the 889-page CPI chat also showed the governor may have been using public resources for his own political work, and discussed how to destabilize public institutions like the University of Puerto Rico and the public TV station WIPR.

The CPI report, which came three days after the arrest of two former administration officials accused of corruption, fueled calls for his resignation, condensing years of frustration over the federal government’s management of Puerto Rican debt and the underwhelming response to Hurricane Maria into a single political moment. Massive, intensely creative protests followed — most likely the largest in the island’s history — resulting in Governor Rosselló’s resignation, effective August 2. Intelligencer spoke with CPI journalist Luis Valentín on his nonprofit center’s work, the structural problems imposed on the island, and where Rosselló and the government in San Juan go from here.

Could you tell me about the reporting that went into publishing the Rosselló texts?

We had been working on an investigation for almost a month before we published the chat story. That investigation was published on the Wednesday following the Saturday when we published the chat. As part of that process, we started to have a relationship with a source, and it got to a point where the source leaked part of the chat through various media outlets in Puerto Rico. Our intent, the whole time, was to publish the whole document. We were able to go through the document, we had already validated its authenticity, and then we put together a short story — compared to the work that CPI usually does. We published when we were ready, and that was around 2 a.m. on that Saturday, July 13.

We really wanted to focus on the potential criminal activity and unethical activity in the chat. We were aware of the memes and jokes and all these insults that were targeted toward people, but we really wanted to emphasize parts of the chat showing potentially illegal and unethical activity that had to be investigated. When Rosselló first responded to the leaked chat, he said something to the effect of ‘Hey, I apologize for this. This was improper, but it was not illegal.’

What were some of those potentially illegal activities?

There were two things that overall constituted illegal activity, validated by an independent report that the House of Representatives put out. One of them is the use of public resources to do political-campaign work. Throughout the chat, it shows them, during working hours, conducting political-campaign work not related to the government. That’s not allowed here under the law.

The other thing was the exchange of privileged and confidential information among the members of the chat. There were 12 group members, including contractors and third parties outside the government who had access to information that was clearly marked as confidential or privileged. Information that if a journalist or citizen asked the government for, they would most likely say ‘Hey, I can’t give you that, it’s privileged.’ Those two areas of activity show, with a high probability, that they actually breached the law.

Does it appear that Rosselló will face an investigation?

After we published the chat and another story on the investigation itself, the House of Representatives commissioned this three-member independent committee to examine and go over the documents and try to find grounds for impeachment. The day the governor resigned, there was an understanding between Rosselló and legislative leaders that, once the report confirmed all the reporting that there are grounds for impeachment — precisely on those areas of sharing privileged information and the governor’s use of public resources to do political-campaign work — there was an understanding that he would resign and the impeachment process would not carry over.

Following his resignation, the House said they would not continue the impeachment process. This was done despite a lot of concerns by lawmakers because Rosselló’s resignation is not effective until August 2. There’s fear that he could withdraw his resignation, but as of now, there is apparently an investigation going on by the local Justice Department. We just don’t know if they’re investigating the governor himself or if they’re focusing on other chat group members. In terms of the impeachment process, it’s on hold, because the House speaker doesn’t want to continue the process because of Rosselló’s resignation.

What was Rosselló’s relative popularity prior to the chat scandal?

There were a lot of people angry with his administration, particularly over areas of shutting down schools and some of the public-policy decisions that the majority of people did not support. Remember that we also have the federally appointed fiscal-control board, and most of the controversial decisions have been made by the board. The Rosselló administration, I would say, was very good, strategically speaking, in making clear that most of these controversial decisions like pension cuts, further austerity measures, cutting down on agency budgets, and shutting down or consolidating agencies — a lot of things that could be seen as bad policy decisions — Rosselló was always clear in his message: ‘That’s the board, and I’m fighting against those decisions.’

It’s a hard question to answer because he didn’t have the best numbers, but there’s also the board. People are, were, angrier at the board and at their decisions than at the Rosselló administration.

Could you tell me a little about Puerto Rico’s protest culture? The protests from the last week have been very musical and very positive. I’m thinking of the videos of protestors picking up trash after the demonstration — which would not happen in New York.

Puerto Rico’s protest culture before this protest was very different. There were some sectors in Puerto Rico, particularly the unions and other activist groups that have protested forever, but Puerto Ricans were not necessarily known for massive rallies and all that. This time was very different, and you could see that in the magnitude of the protest, and in all the different ways in which people protested. Having thousands of motorcycles driving all over San Juan, scuba divers protesting on the water, kayaks, yoga, music, reading bedtime stories in front of the police — you had a lot of different ways in which Puerto Ricans expressed a single message.

I think it’s important that the message was loud and clear to unite people in all these different sectors, and that was the resignation of Rosselló. Most people set aside their political beliefs, didn’t really talk about things that would bring some debate, they united in one single message that was: Governor Rosselló must resign. They didn’t feel that he was worthy of being their governor, and I think that was very important when it comes to seeing the ways in which people expressed themselves protesting and the amount of people and all their differences. It was not only young people, we’re talking about families, professionals like doctors and lawyers who usually don’t take part in these protests.

Could you explain why Puerto Ricans continue to protest after Rosselló’s resignation? It definitely speaks to the structural problems that the island is facing.

This has been brewing for a while. You have to go back to Hurricane Maria, you have to go back to the economy of the island, you have to go back to the fiscal-control board. There’s been a lot of negativity, and the chat was the last straw, so to speak. Now, the people feel that it doesn’t just stop with Rosselló resigning. There’s a lot of corruption still in the government, they don’t feel that the person taking over, Wanda Vázquez, is the right person to be there. She has been questioned before, she has been the subject of an investigation before, she had to step down for a while. She’s not the most noncontroversial option. [Editor’s note: Vázquez tweeted that she doesn’t want the job on Sunday.]

Then there’s the fiscal board, and a lot of people feel that this whole thing, the board will get more power to control the government. A majority of Puerto Ricans don’t want that. I think that that’s why you see protests continue, probably not to the degree that we saw this month, but protests will continue because until people feel that they have somebody in La Fortaleza that they can at least trust or help them, they can’t trust in public institutions. That trust they lost with this whole process.

Are fears of a power grab by the fiscal-control board valid?

The board has not said much in this process. I think they’ve put out two statements in the last two weeks, stating that they will remain on the side while the elected government solves this thing. There have been reports by national media outlets suggesting there’s talk in Congress, where some members feel like they need to give more power to the board to try and control and bring back some stability to government operations. It’s not a stretch to think about. We knew and have seen how the board and the elected government have clashed over a lot of issues. If we don’t have a functional government, who do you think will try to take more control? People think, ‘Of course it’s the board.’

There’s a lot of uncertainty right now. People continue to protest and feel that things need to change and it doesn’t stop with the governor’s resignation. It will be very important moving forward to find a person that could help people regain their trust in government, because they’ve certainly lost it with this whole thing.

… Anything that the people see as related to corruption, or feel like they don’t trust, that will continue the protests. And the government needs to take that into consideration, because if they really want to bring back to normal government operations, they need to really find someone people can trust. Leaving aside politics and all other considerations, they have to think of the people.

Editorial note: Luis Valentín contributed reporting to a New York feature on the consulting firm McKinsey’s role in the Puerto Rico government-debt crisis. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A Puerto Rican Journalist on What Comes After #Rickyrenuncia