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Doubts surface over Puerto Rican governor's motivation to fire housing secretary

His firing comes days after HUD said it would release long-awaited housing recovery funds, raising concerns about what comes next.
Image: Puerto Ricans Protest After Warehouse Full Of Undistributed Relief Supplies Found
Protesters demand the resignation of Governor Wanda Vazquez during protests in front of Capitol building on Jan. 20, 2020 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.Jose Jimenez / Getty Images

The decision by Puerto Rico's governor to fire the island's housing secretary just as the U.S. territory is slated to receive some long-awaited hurricane recovery funds is throwing uncertainty into an already complicated process — as both sides dispute the motivations behind the ouster.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez fired Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat and two other high-profile officials after residents in the earthquake-hit southern town of Ponce discovered a warehouse full of emergency supplies, some dating back to 2017 when Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory.

His ouster came four days after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ended its yearlong hold on $8.2 billion of hurricane aid funding to help Puerto Rico rebuild hurricane-ravaged homes. The much-needed funds are supposed to be administered by the agency Gil Enseñat used to oversee.

The governor accused the three fired officials of not informing her of the existence of warehouses full of emergency supplies.

Gil Enseñat has told local news outlets his agency had “nothing to do” with the supplies found in Ponce. He clarified that his agency is tasked with overseeing emergency supply warehouses in the towns of Cabo Rojo and Río Piedras, not Ponce, adding that updated information on the inventory of both warehouses was made available to the governor.

The locations of the emergency supply warehouses situated in Ponce and in other towns are included in Puerto Rico’s emergency management plan. The plan was signed by Vázquez in August 2019, suggesting that she already knew about the existence of the warehouses before outraged residents broke into the Ponce warehouse last week.

"Doesn't have my trust"

While Vázquez did not elaborate on the circumstances that led her to fire Gil Enseñat, she only said “he doesn’t have my trust due to various circumstances.”

But rumors quickly started circulating suggesting that Gil Enseñat was fired because of his support for Pedro Pierlusi — who is running against Vázquez to become the gubernatorial nominee under the island’s pro-statehood party ahead of the elections in November.

On Tuesday afternoon, Vazquez elaborated on what led to his dismissal, saying in a statement that the former housing secretary put “at risk” the disbursement of the hurricane aid HUD agreed to release last week after holding the funds for over a year.

The governor did not respond to questions from NBC News on how Gil Enseñat specifically put the disbursement process at risk. However, the former housing secretary had been critical of HUD for adding a series of last minute restrictions that would significantly limit the way in which Puerto Rico can use the hurricane aid provided through HUD’s grant program known as CDBG-DR.

Gil Enseñat told Vázquez the restrictions showed the "bad faith of some officials, not all" at HUD and expressed his intention to fight back, according to El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s biggest national newspaper.

Vázquez alleges that Gil Enseñat did not consult her before making remarks contesting HUD’s actions, adding that his intentions go against the public policies her administration seeks to implement and could further delay the disbursement of the funds, she said in a statement in Spanish.

Hope for "continuity in the process"

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., who has been pressuring the administration to release funds it has allocated but not disbursed to Puerto Rico, told NBC News in a statement that "regardless of why the Puerto Rico Housing Secretary was dismissed, the fact remains that the long delayed federal HUD funds need to be released so Puerto Rico may rebuild. I fully hope to see continuity in this process and will keep monitoring to see HUD keeps moving forward.”

HUD Secretary Ben Carson tweeted on Sunday that the news coming out of Puerto Rico “is disturbing, to say the least.” He said it “further underscores the importance” of the restrictions his agency imposed last week limiting how the island can use HUD money to recover.

Sergio Marxuach, the policy director at the Center for a New Economy (CNE), a nonpartisan think tank, said the restrictions seek to prohibit the use of HUD funds to help fix the island’s electrical grid, even though Congress promised $2 billion to rebuild it, and give more power to a new federal financial monitor appointed by HUD in the island’s recovery process, among other limitations.

“The situation in Puerto Rico is so desperate and the island really needs those funds at any cost," Marxuach said in Spanish. "And they seem to be taking advantage of that,” referring to HUD.

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