Puerto Rico governor plans statement amid uncertainty over his future

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló prepared to make an announcement to the people on Wednesday as the legislature began an impeachment process against him amid mass protests and uncertainty about the governor’s political future.

Rosselló, a first-term governor for the U.S. territory, has resisted calls to step down over a scandal local media have dubbed “Rickyleaks.” Media, including El Nuevo Día newspaper, earlier cited unnamed sources as saying his resignation was imminent, but rumors also swirled that he would not resign.

“The impeachment process has started,” said Johnny Mendez, speaker of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives and a member of Rossello’s party.

Mendez scheduled a special session of the legislature at 2 p.m. on Thursday to set up a commission to impeach Rossello, El Nuevo Dia reported, after the governor failed to appear at a 5 p.m. press conference or give any address to the country by 8:30 p.m.

Nearly two weeks of protests were spurred by the publication on July 13 of chat messages in which Rosselló and aides used profane language to describe female politicians and gay Puerto Rican celebrities, including singer Ricky Martin.

The 40-year-old governor, who is serving in his first elected office, is weighing his political future and planned to make an announcement on Wednesday, Rosselló spokesman Anthony Maceira said.

“Today, Governor Ricardo Rossello will address the people of Puerto Rico directly in a message that he is preparing at this moment,” Maceira told reporters. “I don’t know at what time.”

FILE PHOTO: Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello speaks during an interview in New York City, U.S., November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid//File Photo

An independent panel of lawyers commissioned by Mendez to investigate the offensive messages found four felonies and one misdemeanor may have been committed during the Telegram message group chats, one of the lawyers, Luis Rodríguez-Rivera, said in an email.

Thousands of protesters outside the powder-blue and white governor’s mansion grew ever more impatient for news from Rosselló.

Rows of riot police marched past the residence, named “The Fortress,” in preparation for what some thought could become a night of confrontation if Rosselló did not step down.

Protesters were cautiously optimistic he would resign, but said the fight wasn’t over.

“I am still fighting no matter what because whoever replaces him is just as bad as him,” said Jennifer Peña, 42.

The island of 3.2 million people has been rocked by multiple crises in recent years, including a bankruptcy filing and a devastating hurricane in 2017 that killed about 3,000 people.

If Rosselló steps down, Puerto Rico’s constitution says the island’s secretary of state would become governor. But Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marin left the post due to the chat scandal. Next in line is Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, whom many protesters reject because of her ties to the governor.

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Puerto Rican economist Gustavo Velez tweeted that Rosselló had yet to make an announcement because he was trying to line up a new secretary of state to replace him.

“They still don’t have a Secretary of State acceptable to political interests with 2020 ahead,” Velez said, referring to the gubernatorial election on the island next year.

A string of Rosselló’s closest aides have stepped down as prosecutors investigated the scandal. The governor’s chief of staff Ricardo Llerandi resigned on Tuesday, citing concerns for the safety of his family.

Reporting by Nick Brown in San Juan; Additional reporting by Marco Bello and Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan, Karen Pierog in Chicago and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay; Editing by Leslie Adler, Matthew Lewis and Cynthia Osterman

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