SAN JUAN — After nearly two weeks of increasingly tense protests and calls from members of his own party to resign, Puerto Rico’s legislature signaled Wednesday night it was moving to begin impeachment proceedings against embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
The governor was widely expected to resign on Wednesday, and scheduled a press conference in the evening, but Rosselló failed to appear. As the night went on without word from Rosselló, growing numbers of protesters arrived outside the governor's mansion in Old San Juan, along with large police force, according to civil rights observers on the ground.
Members of the House of Representatives will meet on Thursday at 1 p.m. to take the first official step toward impeaching the governor, setting up a commission for the process, members of the legislature said.
On Monday, while hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took part in one of the largest protests in the island's history to demand his resignation, Rosselló again said he would not resign. A statement from his office on Wednesday said he "has not resigned" and is "in a process of reflection."
“I’ve seen the protests, I’ve heard the people talk, I’ve had a process of introspection. And I did, I made a decision, I’m not going to run, I’m not going to seek reelection. That way I can focus on the work at hand,” he said, in an interview with Fox News on Monday — the only time he has spoken to the press since protests began.
The governor has been under pressure to resign after more than 800 pages of leaked chats between Rosselló and his closest advisers were published by the Center for Investigative Journalism on July 13. The messages showed him using misogynistic language, making anti-gay jokes, talking about using public funds to carry out vengeful schemes against political enemies, and making jokes about the large number of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria.
A member of the House majority New Progressive Party (PNP) told BuzzFeed News that in combination with 17 votes from opposition parties, they likely have the 34 votes needed to refer Rosselló to the Senate for impeachment. The process would then be presided over by a Puerto Rico Supreme Court Justice in the Senate.
House Speaker Carlos "Johnny" Mendez commissioned a group of lawyers last week to examine the chat and issue a report to the House — a move not required by the constitution but one that members felt further strengthened the case for Rosselló's impeachment.
The lawyers found that the governor may have taken part in the embezzlement of public funds, in addition to having been negligent in his performance of duty, and having illegally seized public works or services, the newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported Wednesday.
Puerto Rico's Bar Association also released a report last week examining the leaked messages and found several potential violations of Puerto Rico's Government Ethics Law. The legal group recommended beginning impeachment proceedings.
Rosselló is a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and son of a former governor of Puerto Rico. He did not challenge President Donald Trump's assertions after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017 that it was not a "real catastrophe" like Hurricane Katrina, while thousands of people died and went without food, water, electricity, and housing. The island, whose residents are US citizens, still has not fully recovered.
For months after the hurricane hit the island, he refused to acknowledge that his administration was under-counting the number of people who were dying because of a lack of services, supplies and electricity.