SAN JUAN – Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez was sworn-in on Wednesday as governor of Puerto Rico, becoming the third person in five days to hold the post after the island’s Supreme Court struck down the installation of her immediate predecessor.
The court ruled unanimously earlier Wednesday that the process whereby Pedro Pierluisi succeeded the disgraced Ricardo Rossello as the island’s governor last week was unconstitutional.
Supreme Court Justice Maite Oronoz went to La Fortaleza, the seat of Puerto Rico’s government, at 5:00 pm Wednesday to administer the oath of office to Vazquez.
Pierluisi, formerly Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in the US Congress, took the oath of office last Friday, minutes after Rossello stepped down following weeks of mass protests over incendiary comments he and others made in a private online chat.
Under the constitution of this US commonwealth, the secretary of state is supposed to become governor if the incumbent is unable to continue in office.
But the position of secretary of state was vacant when Rossello announced his resignation on July 24, as incumbent Luis Rivera Marin had quit on July 13 as a result of the same scandal that ultimately toppled the governor.
The initial plan called for the next person in the line of succession, Vazquez, to assume the governorship.
But in the face of hostile public reaction, Vazquez – a Rossello ally herself accused of ethical lapses – quickly renounced her claim and political leaders eventually settled on the idea of making Pierluisi secretary of state and then having him succeed the departing governor.
Pierluisi was sworn-in last Wednesday as secretary of state and had been scheduled to appear before the Senate the following day for a confirmation hearing.
But Senate leader Thomas Rivera Schatz decided to postpone the confirmation until this week and late Sunday, he filed a legal challenge claiming that the ratification of Pierluisi by the House of Representatives fell short of what is required by a 1952 piece of legislation known as Law 7.
San Juan’s El Nuevo Dia newspaper reported Wednesday that Vazquez, who had shown little interest in becoming governor, hopes to be able to step aside in favor of Puerto Rico’s current US congressional delegate, Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon.
“With absolute legitimacy, we will seek genuine peace and stability,” Rivera said in a statement after learning of the court’s decision.
“Now is when that detestable chat group – who lied, mocked, schemed, conspired, violated the law and betrayed Puerto Rico – truly ended and will leave the government,” the Senate president said.
Puerto Rico’s political crisis began last month with the publication of messages from the chat group comprising Rossello and other top officials as well figures from outside the administration.
Disseminated by the Center for Investigative Journalism, the 800-plus pages of chats include references to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Puerto Rico-born former president of the New York City Council, as “whores.”
In one exchange, Rossello responds approvingly when an official says he would like to shoot Mayor Cruz, while a gubernatorial aide jokes about the thousands of Puerto Ricans who died in 2017 as a result of Hurricane Maria.
Rossello and others on the chat also made homophobic comments about openly gay Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin.
And the publication of the chats came as the Rossello government was already reeling from the arrests of two former senior officials on charges of fraud, theft and money laundering.