House Democrats slam Trump admin for 'illegally withholding' Puerto Rico hurricane aid

Lawmakers say HUD is breaking the law by missing a congressionally mandated deadline to make $10.2B available in hurricane aid to the island.
Image: Residents sit on a couch outside of their destroyed home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 26, 2017.
Residents sit on a couch outside of their destroyed home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 26, 2017.Gerald Herbert / AP file

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By Nicole Acevedo

Democratic lawmakers Thursday accused the Trump administration of "illegally withholding" funding for hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico after missing a legally required deadline to kick off the process three months ago.

The chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, said at a press conference, "they knew their actions were illegal and yet they did it anyways," referring to top officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, including Secretary Ben Carson.

The missed deadline would have jump-started the process to help the island get billions in federal housing funds that Congress appropriated 664 days ago after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory in 2017.

Castro joined other House Democrats including the chairman of the Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who accused HUD of "illegally withholding" the funding for recovery efforts including rebuilding tens of thousands of homes with damaged roofs, many of which are still covered with blue tarps.

Congress had mandated the housing agency to issue funding notices to 18 disaster-stricken states and territories no later than Sept. 4. They published all the notices except Puerto Rico’s. The publication of the notice would have allowed island officials to start drafting a plan that would create the structures needed to manage $10.2 billion in much-needed recovery funds.

Castro said it's been "over 90 days since the Trump administration knowingly broke the law by failing to comply with the deadline to issue a federal notice for over $10 billion in aid to Puerto Rico."

"This is not meant to be a suggestion, it's mandated," Price told NBC News. "It's time to release this notice and the longer this goes on, the more one has to wonder about the political influences that might be taking place at the top."

By Saturday, over 850 organizations in the states and Puerto Rico had joined members of Congress in denouncing "the agency’s failure to abide by the law."

“HUD needs to stop playing games,” said Kathy Bergin, director of the Disaster Law Project, in a statement. “Thousands of people in Puerto Rico are still living in dilapidated homes with tarp-covered roofs. What good does it do to formally allocate money for housing recovery, without a system that allows Puerto Rico housing officials to access those funds?”

"Every day of inaction puts American lives at risk,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Carson and other HUD officials have echoed previous statements from President Donald Trump to justify their decision for intentionally stalling Puerto Rico's recovery funding process, citing "alleged corruption" and "fiscal irregularities" as well as “Puerto Rico's capacity to manage these funds."

Price said the Trump administration is exaggerating the corruption allegations since the Office of Inspector General didn't find widespread corruption within Puerto Rico's housing agency, which would be managing the federal housing aid at stake.

An audit from the Office of Inspector General found that Puerto Rico’s housing department should improve financial and procurement controls, as well as develop processes to prevent duplication of benefits and increase their staff. But it did not find evidence of widespread corruption, according to Jeremy Kirkland, counsel to HUD’s inspector general.

While HUD made headlines last year for granting Puerto Rico $18.5 billion, the largest single amount of disaster recovery assistance awarded in the agency's history, these funds are still a long way off.

A HUD spokesman told NBC News that the funding process "must be handled in a prudent manner with strong financial controls to mitigate the risk to Federal taxpayers," adding that Puerto Rico has spent $5.8 million of a $1.5 billion housing grant they gained access to back in February.

Price added that additional controls exist in other stages of the funding process that can be used to monitor the disbursement of housing funds to Puerto Rico.

"HUD’s continued allocations indicates their awareness of the ongoing need, but it doesn’t mean much if Puerto Rico does not get those funds,” said Laura M. Esquivel, the director of national advocacy at the Hispanic Federation.

John Hudak, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told NBC News that congressional deadlines do get missed from time to time but agencies are normally upfront about it in order to address concerns in a timely manner. "Instead, they silently missed the deadline," Hudak said.

"When these conversations do not happen, it means that something else is going on and it raises concerns that something improper might be happening," he said.

The Office of Inspector General is currently investigating whether the Trump administration "has deliberately slowed giving recovery funds to Puerto Rico," according to Price.

The assistant speaker of the House, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., accused Carson of taking "the Trump administration's disregard for the island to another level — this Congress will not stand by and allow the Trump administration to get away with this."

Hudak explained that lawmakers have a few pathways to force HUD to start the process to release congressionally appropriated funds to Puerto Rico.

The most immediate mechanism is through the appropriations process which helps fund HUD's everyday activities. Congress could use that as a "punitive tool" by holding money meant for the agency, Hudak said.

"I don’t want it to come to this," Price told NBC.

Congress and the Puerto Rican government could also sue and ask a judge to "essentially order them to do what they're supposed to do," Hudak said. Other options are conducting hearings to add pressure and push the agency to abide by the congressional mandate or escalating the issue to a presidential level.

"But in this case, it might not work because Trump has not voiced interest in helping Puerto Rico," Hudak said.

During the press conference, the co-chair of the Hispanic Caucus' Puerto Rico Task Force, Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., urged Trump "to finally be presidential and do the right thing."

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