How the Puerto Rico Text Scandal Unfolded and What It All Means

Understand the Telegramgate scandal in Puerto Rico, the key players, the politics and how the eventual resignation of the governor played...

You might be forgiven for not fully understanding what happened in the recent Puerto Rican protests. The whole affair moved at a blistering pace and there were plenty of motivators that all factored into the governor’s eventual resignation. The lightning quick protests shunted the sitting governor from office, prompted over a dozen high-level government officials to resign, and resulted in 3 separate governors holding office in a span of 6 days.

In August, 2019 the US territory experienced 12 days of sustained protests following the leak of an expletive-laden and derisive message chain that involved then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló along with 11 officials, aides, and close political contacts. The scandal has been called different names, including “Chatgate” and “Rickyleaks,” but is most commonly known as “Telegramgate” after the Telegram encrypted messaging app the group used.

 The Telegram chat was riddled with foul and insulting language, mockery of citizens, journalists, and politicians, homophobic and misogynistic comments, and mockery of the thousands who lost their lives following Hurricane Maria. This loss of legitimacy was the tipping point for years of dissatisfaction and drove hundreds of thousands into the streets in protest.

KEY PLAYERS

  • Ricardo Rosselló
    • Position: Governor of Puerto Rico
    • Influence level: High.
      • Son of former Governor Pedro Rosselló, Ricardo is at the center of both the chat scandal and the corruption allegations plaguing his administration.
      • His political connections and stature within the New Democrat Party allowed him to leverage longstanding political relationships to win control of his party and the government.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • On July 24, Rosselló announced his resignation under threat of impeachment effective August 2.
      • Nearly 500,000 protestors had marched on his residence to demand his resignation in what will likely be the definitive end of his political career.
      • There still exists the potential for him to be investigated on corruption charges but that remains to be seen. 
    • Motivation:
      • While Rosselló was heavily involved in the corruption infrastructure that led to his downfall, his ambition appears to be focused on Puerto Rican public service.
      • Rosselló will most likely leave the island permanently and seek a position with one of the many firms that benefitted from his influence peddling.
  • Elías Sánchez
    • Position: Lobbyist and Rosselló’s former campaign director
    • Influence level: High.
      • Sánchez holds an extremely close personal relationship with Rosselló and, up until 2017, was the governor’s liaison to the Puerto Rico Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB).
      • He left his charge to represent a number of contractors to the Puerto Rican government in an arrangement that saw himself, Carlos Bermúdez, and Edwin Miranda wield immense power over and above legitimate cabinet members.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • While Sánchez is responsible for some of the more reprehensible comments in the leaked chat, he is no longer a public figure and will likely face little public backlash.
      • However, the exposition of his influence in government and the contract arrangements he established could lead to criminal investigations leading to stiff penalization.
    • Motivation:
      • Sánchez’ principal motivator was to leverage personal relationship with governor to secure lucrative contracts for himself and his clients.
      • Reports indicate that he will be pleading the fifth amendment in an attempt not to incriminate himself.
  • Luis Rivera Marín
    • Position: Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State
    • Influence level: Medium.
      • Marín has extensive business and political connections that lend him a great deal of influence.
      • As part of Rosselló’s inner circle, he also benefited from an inside track on policy and economic matters.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • As one of the first members of Rosselló’s Cabinet to resign amidst the scandal Marín will likely face little long-term public backlash, allowing him to salvage his political career.
    • Motivation:
      • Rivera Marín boasts an extensive career in public service and likely looks to maintain that career in the future.
      • His quick resignation suggests that he was able to predict the coming fallout from the scandal and made a quick exit to salvage his public image.
  • Christian Sobrino Vega
    • Position: Puerto Rico’s Chief Executive Officer, Governor’s ex oficio representative to the FOMB and President of the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico
    • Influence level: High.
      • Extensive business and political connections give him a high degree of influence.
      • Moreover, his position as the Governor’s representative on the FOMB suggests a close relationship between the two.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • Though Sobrino Vega resigned relatively quickly, he authored many of the worst chat leaks highlighted by the media.
      • Sobrino Vega will likely land a position with one of the firms he assisted in obtaining government contracts.
    • Motivation:
      • Sobrino Vega seeks to increase his foothold on public influence but has likely lost a great deal of legitimacy resulting from the leaked chats.
      • His position on a number of Puerto Rican agencies and boards suggests he will be able to continue his administrative career but his public career is likely over.
  • Alfonso Orona
    • Position: Rosselló Administration’s former Chief Legal Officer and current Legal Consultant
    • Influence level: Medium.
      • While Orona possessed a great deal of influence through unfettered access to the governor, his position was an advisory role as opposed to a strategic decision-maker.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • Orona had recently resigned in February following his involvement in a serious, but non-lethal car accident.
      • In addition, few of his comments on the chat were incendiary enough to garner widespread attention, thus shielding him from extensive backlash.
      • Orona was largely out of the public eye at the time of the leaks and likely will not suffer much more from the current scandal.
    • Motivation:
  • Ramón Rosario
    • Position: Rosselló Administration’s former Public Affairs Secretary
    • Influence level: Low.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • Rosario had resigned from his post as Public Affairs Secretary in late 2018 and has recently been working as a political analyst with Telemundo.
      • However, once the chats were leaked, Telemundo fired Rosario from the network on July 13.
      • Rosario has consistently held public-facing positions in recent years.
      • His homophobic comments in the chat are enough to keep him from any public affairs positions, but a more damning issue is what appears to be a conspiracy to remove then-Police monitor, Arnaldo Claudio, as a complication to the governor’s 2020 re-election bid.
      • This development may result in a criminal investigation suggests former police commissioner Michelle Hernandez de Fraley.
    • Motivation:
      • Rosario used his experience in government to secure a position in public-facing media with Telemundo.
      • His public sacking from Telemundo suggests find further public media work will be challenging, which may push him back to the legal world.
  • Raúl Maldonado
    • Position: Rosselló Administration’s former Chief Financial Officer and Treasury Secretary
    • Influence level: Low.
      • Maldonado’s son soon went public with the corruption allegations against Rosselló with appearances on radio shows and interviews.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • The scandal had very little impact on Maldonado as he was already ousted from office on June 24.
      • His public denouncement of Rosselló’s corrupt influence-peddling practices largely shielded him from public outrage and will likely position him as a political option in the future.
    • Motivation:
      • Despite his close connections to Rosselló’s inner circle, Maldonado was reticent to partake in extensive corruption activities.
      • His denouncement of the governor’s practices won him favor with the public and will likely help salvage his career.
  • Carlos Bermúdez
    • Position: Rosselló Administration’s communications aide
    • Influence level: High.
      • Bermúdez was able to leverage his political connections to win hundreds of thousands in government contracts.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • Unconfirmed reports about police raids on his property have circulated recently.
      • Further scrutiny has now been placed on Bermúdez’ finances and the contracts he garnered through his relationship with the governor.
      • There is a strong possibility that a formal investigation may be brought against Bermúdez in the coming months.
    • Motivation:
      • Bermúdez’ primary motivator is to maintain influence within the Puerto Rican government to secure lucrative contracts.
      • His efforts have been largely rewarded by the corruption schemes established in the Puerto Rican government but rumblings of federal investigations will likely stymie his progress.
  • Edwin Miranda
    • Position: An external communications consultant
    • Influence level: Medium.
      • While Miranda was able to secure large contracts through friendships with Rosselló and his predecessor Luis Fortuno, he was not involved in high level decision-making or strategy.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • Miranda’s public backlash from the leaked chats has been minimal.
      • In contrast, a federal investigation has been initiated over his company, KOI AMERICAS’, contracts with the Puerto Rican government.
      • The cozy relationship between Miranda and Rosselló has prompted allegations that KOI AMERICAS pressured government officials to obtain said contracts.
    • Motivation:
      • Bermúdez’ primary motivator is to maintain influence within the Puerto Rican government to secure lucrative contracts.
      • His efforts have been largely rewarded by the corruption schemes established in the Puerto Rican government but rumblings of federal investigations will likely stymie his progress.
  • Ricardo Llerandi
    • Position: Puerto Rico Interior Secretary and Chief of Staff
    • Influence level: Low.
      • Rosselló had appointed Llerandi as his Chief of Staff in January 2019.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • Llerandi cited the safety of his family as his primary concern following a number of threats he received in the wake of the chat leak.
      • He is a popular politician who won his 2016 re-election with record margins and will likely not receive extensive public backlash.
    • Motivation:
      • Llerandi has persisted in public service and will likely use his recent experience in La Fortaleza to further his political career.
      • Receding public backlash will likely push Llerandi to the private sector before returning to public life.
  • Anthony Maceira
    • Position: Public Affairs Secretary
    • Influence level: Low.
      • Though Maceira was one of the last members of Rosselló’s cabinet to resign, he lacked the personal connections and financial backing that many of the chat members enjoyed.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • The former Public Affairs Secretary appears to have been relatively inactive in the chat and is not guilty of the vulgar commentary that peppered the Telegram discussion.
      • As a result, he has evaded public outrage and will likely be able to continue his political career.
    • Motivation:
      • Despite resigning from his post as Public Affairs Secretary, Maceira continues in his position as Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Port Authority and will likely continue building his political career.
  • Wanda Vazquez Garced
    • Position: Former Justice Secretary
    • Influence level: High.
      • Though she does not possess the same political connections as the other players, her position as Justice Secretary allows extensive investigative authority.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • As an unelected official with a few blemishes on her record, Vazquez met some public resistance to her candidacy as the interim governor.
      • However, after a failed attempt by Rosselló to appoint Pedro Pierluisi, Vasquez was constitutionally bound to the position and was sworn in on August 7.
      • She will hold the governorship until the coming general election in 2020.
    • Motivation:
      • Originally opposed to assuming the position of governor, Vasquez now seeks to improve Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery efforts and lagging economy.
      • She is currently piecing her interim government together as she slowly names het cabinet for congressional approval.
  • Pedro Pierluisi
    • Position: Puerto Rico’s Former Resident Commissioner
    • Influence level: Medium.
      • Pierluisi served as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner from 2009 through 2017 – a position often regarded as a springboard to the governorship – and served as the Secretary of State under Governor Pedro Rosselló from 1993 to 1997.
      • He is a New Progressive Party stalwart and narrowly lost to Rosselló in the 2016 primary.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • Upon his resignation, Rosselló named Pierluisi as Secretary of State which allowed Pierluisi to be sworn in as governor on August 2 during a recess appointment.
      • Rosselló pursued his nomination despite legal challenges from their party but the Supreme Court quickly overturned Pierluisi’s appointment on August 7.
    • Motivation:
      • Pierluisi is a career politician with extensive experience in a number of high-ranking positions.
      • His career trajectory suggests that he has the governorship in mind and will likely run for the position in the coming general election.
  • Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI, Center for Investigative Journalism)
    • Position: Independent news outlet that first published the leaked chat
    • Influence Level: High.
      • Founded in 2007, CPI has quickly snatched up much of Puerto Rico’s top journalistic talent and established itself as a hard-hitting news outlet striking at government ineptitude.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • Following the publication of the infamous chats, CPI has sky rocketed in influence and readership.
      • Their new stature has allowed them increased resources and influence to deliver eye-opening news affecting the most integral parts of government.
    • Motivation:
      • CPI defines themselves by their criticism of ineffective and corrupt governance on Puerto Rico.
      • The Hurricane Maria recovery effort has been a major focal point of their recent investigative journalism and has been highly scrutinized.
  • Civilian Protestors
    • Position: Collection of social activist groups that led anti-government protests
    • Influence Level: Low.
      • Individually, these groups all possessed relatively low influence.
      • Each group or cause had held numerous rallies in the past with little effect.
    • Impacts of Telegramgate:
      • The offensive messages sent through the chat were offensive to a broad range of the Puerto Rican population.
      • The protests crossed demographic lines which prompted unlikely alliances amongst protestors who would otherwise oppose the government individually.
      • The overwhelming weight of a united opposition was unlike any previously seen in Puerto Rico.
    • Motivation:
      • Good, respectful government.

UNDERLYING ISSUES

A Stagnating Economy

The protests were not, however, simply about vulgar texts or bold-faced corruption. Long-standing issues had been simmering within the Puerto Rican population and had been growing for some time. The island is currently in its 13th year of recession as the economy struggles to recover with no immediate relief in sight. Puerto Rico is presently suffering from $55B in unfunded pensions, a 44.4% poverty rate, and an unemployment rate hovering around 8.5%.

Sweeping Austerity

Facing a dwindling economy, pervasive corruption, and a mass exodus from the island, the Puerto Rican government initiated bankruptcy proceedings in 2017. The development led the federal government to appoint the unpopular and unelected FOMB which was charged with restoring the island to fiscal sustainability. The FOMB would later implement extensive austerity measures which severely hampered public services and fostered growing unrest in the population. Rosselló’s inability to counter or effectively deal with the FOMB to stymie the steady march of austerity further eroded public confidence in his administration.

Hurricane Maria

In the midst of all this turmoil struck Hurricane Maria; quite simply, one of the most devastating disasters in Puerto Rico’s history. The recovery effort following Hurricane Maria was plagued with mismanagement by the island’s government who was accused of ineptitude and corrupt practices by the general population. Originally, the government only recognized 64 deaths as a direct cause of Hurricane Maria, but follow-up studies by Harvard University and George Washington University estimated the deaths at 4,645 and 2,975, respectively. The slow recovery effort, wasted funds, and poorly distributed supplies all added to the grievances of ordinary Puerto Ricans.

A Disaffected Political Class

Ordinary Puerto Ricans were not the only ones incensed by Rosselló’s cabinet. The closed circle of insiders in the governor’s administration largely shunned the political class that held the reins of power in Puerto Rico. Career politicians who had governed for decades were locked out of critical decision-making while rumors swirled of impropriety within the governor’s cabinet. The antagonization from the governor’s office meant that the House of Representatives had no hesitation in initiating an impeachment investigation in the event Rosselló opted not to step down.

TIMELINE

July 10, 2019 – Corruption Indictments

Six people – including 2 former members of the Rosselló administration – were federally indicted under charges of corruption for illegally steering roughly $15.5 M in government contracts to personal contacts and politically connected consultants. Those arrested include:

  • Former education secretary, Julia Keleher;
  • Former director of Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration, Ángela Ávila Marrero;
  • 2 sisters working as education contractors, Glenda Ponce-Mendoza and Mayra Ponce-Mendoza;
  • Consultant Alberto Velázquez Piñol;
  • And an executive for the BDO accounting firm, Fernando Scherrer Caillet

Velázquez and Scherrer face money laundering charges and have been accused of leveraging political clout to secure government contracts; the funds for which were re-invested into illegally lobbying the Puerto Rico government. The scandal laid bare the degree of corruption in Puerto Rico, which was trudging through expansive austerity measures and insufficient public management.

Long-standing public dissatisfaction with the Puerto Rican government starts to boil over as a result. News of the arrests prompted Governor Rosselló to return to Puerto Rico from his family vacation in France to address the arrests and apologize for some of the initial leaked chat messages.

July 13, 2019 – Full Chats Released

Amidst the corruption scandal hitting the Rosselló administration, the Center for Investigative Journalism, a Puerto Rican non-profit organization, released nearly 900 pages of private chats between Rosselló and his close aides on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. The chats were a window into the pervasive frat boy culture that Rosselló has engendered.

Prior to the scandal, Rosselló was often viewed as meek and unassuming – frequently referred to as a gentleman by those who dealt with him personally. The leaked chats highlighted his public perception as a spoiled brat who was unfit for the job. Amongst the most egregious comments made are:

  1. Rosselló calling New York City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, a “whore,” a “daughter of a bitch”, and suggesting she “should be beaten up.” The comments were taken as an indication of the chat group’s pervasive misogyny and disrespect for women.
  2. Christian Sobrino Vega mocking the sexuality of Puerto Rican pop star, Ricky Martin, a “male chauvinist” who only has sex with men because “women don’t measure up.” This comment and many like it were insulting to LGBTQ groups which featured largely in the ensuing protests; not least Puerto Rican pop star, Ricky Martin.
  3. After Sobrino Vega joked about the Hurricane Maria death toll, Rosselló responded “Now that we are on the subject, don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” referring to those criticizing the government’s response “Clearly, they need attention.” Comments like this one riled up a host of grievances with the government’s hurricane relief response – which had been mired by an official death toll scandal and ineffective repair efforts.
  4. After Sobrino Vega said he was “salivating to shoot [San Juan Mayor Yulin Cruz],” Rosselló responded that Sobrino Vega would be “Doing [Roselló] a grand favor.” The casually violent remarks made in the chat were jarring to many who felt that women bore the brunt of the chat’s aggression.
  5. Referring to the FOMB, Roselló wrote that the board can “go f— yourself” and followed the message up with a series of ‘middle finger’ emojis. These comments were offensive to the establishment politicians and the federal government who had long complained about the ineffectiveness of Puerto Rico’s government.

Rosselló, already reeling from the corruption indictments from a few days prior, made a public apology for the chats and hand-waved away the issue by stating that this was a private chat and a way for his team to blow off steam after working 18-hour days. He ignored early calls for his resignation and attempted to dismiss the issue by continuing in his position.

CFO Christian Sobrino Vega, Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín, and Communications Aide Carlos Bermúdez resign immediately from their posts citing their involvement in the scandalous message chain.

July 14, 2019 – Protests Swell Outside La Fortaleza

Protests began soon after the initial corruption indictments took place on July 10th. The publication of the full chats fueled public outrage and caused protests to swell to record levels. Protests amassed outside the Governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, where demonstrators demanded Rosselló’s resignation. Police quickly fortified the residence with barricades and riot gear as the protests swelled in size, intensity, and frequency.

July 16, 2019 – Protests First Clash with Police

Sustained protests in San Juan eventually led to violence as police began firing tear gas into the crowds. On July 16, the clashes were publicly denounced by Rosselló who accused the protestors of inciting violence and committing vandalism in the historic San Juan district. Though he issues an apology, he refuses to step down and continues to defend his position in government.

July 17, 2019 – Celebrities and Puerto Rican Diaspora Join Protests

On July 17th the protests are joined by celebrities and Olympians; among them are Ricky Martin, Latin trap artist Bad Bunny, rappers iLe and Residente who join a march from the capital building to the governor’s mansion. Similarly, Hamilton creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, attends a protest in New York. Once again, the protests are met with tear gas and riot police.

July 21, 2019 – Rosselló Starts to Make Concessions

By July 21, Rosselló publicly announces he will not run for re-election and steps down as president of the New Progressive Party, but protestors are not appeased and demand his resignation. Against the backdrop of days-long protests, Rosselló’s cabinet resigns almost in its entirety.

July 23, 2019 – Ricardo Llerandi Resigns from Post

Citing his family’s safety, Puerto Rico Interior Secretary and Chief of Staff  Ricardo Llerandi resigns from his post.

July 24, 2019 –Rosselló Announces His Resignation

At nearly midnight on July 24, Rosselló announces via Facebook live that he will resign effective August 2. Protestors celebrate their victory for days to come as observers determine that, with no Secretary of State, Justice Secretary Wanda Vasquez Garced is next in line to assume the governorship.

July 28, 2019 – Anthony Maceira Resigns from Post

Citing his involvement in the controversial chat, Puerto Rico Public Affairs Secretary Anthony Maceira resigns from his post.

August 2, 2019 – Pedro Pierluisi Sworn in as Governor Amid Legal Challenges

As Vasquez initially rejects the position, Rosselló arranges for Pedro Pierluisi to be sworn in as governor during a Congressional recess appointment. Puerto Rican Congress strongly opposes the move; arguing that it is an unconstitutional decision by the then-governor. Lawmakers announce their intention to legally challenge the appointment in the supreme court.

August 7, 2019 – Wanda Vasquez Garced Sworn in as Governor

The Pierlusi appointment is challenged by the Puerto Rican Congress and the Supreme Court deems it unconstitutional and overturns the decision. As Pierluisi is removed from government, Justice Secretary Wanda Vasquez Garced is sworn in as Puerto Rico’s interim governor on August 7, 2019.

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