The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, defended his agency for knowingly missing a legally required deadline that would have kicked off a monthslong process to help Puerto Rico get billions in federal housing funds Congress allocated after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.
Carson justified HUD's actions after Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., asked him "where in federal law is HUD empowered to withhold money that was supposed to got to Puerto Rico" during a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
"A lot of what we do is dictated by common sense," Carson responded without naming any specific laws.
The housing agency was supposed to issue funding notices to 18 states affected by disasters on Sept. 4. They published all the notices except Puerto Rico’s. The publication of the notice would have allowed Puerto Rico to start drafting a plan that would create the structures needed to manage the much-needed funds.
Two years after Maria, Puerto Rico has received a third of the roughly $43 billion Congress allocated toward hurricane recovery efforts such as rebuilding tens of thousands of homes with damaged roofs, many still covered with blue tarps.
In his response to Velázquez, Carson echoed some of his previous talking points as well as those from President Donald Trump and other members of his administration in citing "alleged corruption" and "fiscal irregularities" as well as “Puerto Rico's capacity to manage these funds."
He also brought up events this summer that led to the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló as governor amid mass protests triggered by political scandals, as well as the island’s decadelong financial crisis, in justifying HUD’s decision to stall Puerto Rico’s funding process.
Carson said that Congress has specifically asked HUD to make sure that the funds that are allocated are provided to jurisdictions who have the resources to manage the funds.
David Woll, HUD's principal deputy assistant secretary for community planning and development, said last week that the agency missed September's funding notice deadline because it was waiting for an audit from the Office of Inspector General looking into “Puerto Rico's capacity to manage these funds” and the appointment of a financial monitor to oversee the disbursement of housing funds.
HUD officials suggested the audit was going to include revelations regarding Puerto Rico’s ability to manage billions of dollars in housing and disaster relief funds.
However, a letter from HUD Inspector General Rae Oliver Davis to Carson stated that the office never said the audit “would have serious or significant findings” and did not recommend that HUD should withhold funding to Puerto Rico.
Jeremy Kirkland, counsel to HUD’s inspector general, defended Davis’ remarks last week, saying that the Office of Inspector General never told HUD that Puerto Rico’s capacity review would reveal grave findings that would prevent them from issuing a funding notice.
"If it was not the inspector general, pushing for this delay, I wonder if this was politically motivated," Velázquez told Carson. "Did anyone at the White House, including the president or the chief of staff, ask you to withhold money that was supposed to go to Puerto Rico?"
Carson said he was not willing to "put an unprecedented amount of money without the appropriate controls" in "a jurisdiction in which there are three changes of government within a month" and "has historically had difficulty with financial management."
Velázquez described HUD's actions as an "abuse of power" and asked Carson to send to Congress evidence of every communication they've had in regards to Puerto Rico to "find out what motivated you to withhold this money for the people of Puerto Rico."
So far, Puerto Rico has received only the first $1.5 billion of a total of $20 billion granted through the agency’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program for infrastructure repairs and rebuilding homes.
"We have been waiting for almost two years for these other critical funds," Puerto Rico's housing secretary, Fernando Gil-Enseñat, said in a series of tweets on Tuesday, adding that the remaining funds would help “building back better” homes, infrastructures and electrical grids.