By Nick Brown
SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Puerto Ricans waited for a promised announcement from their Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Wednesday as the island’s legislature began an impeachment process against him amid mass protests calling for his resignation over leaked chat messages.
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 the El Nuevo Día newspaper, earlier said his resignation was imminent but by Wednesday night rumors swirled that he would not step down.
“The impeachment process has started,” said Johnny Mendez, speaker of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives and a member of Rossello’s party in an afternoon press conference.
Mendez scheduled a special session of the legislature at 2 p.m. on Thursday to set up a commission to impeach the 40-year-old governor, El Nuevo Dia reported.
Mendez made the move after the governor reneged on a deal to appear at a 5 p.m. press conference to announce his resignation, the newspaper reported.
Rossello’s spokesman Anthony Maceira appeared at the event and promised the governor would address the nation on Wednesday. By 10 p.m. Rosselló had yet to make a statement.
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.
Thousands of protesters gathered near the governor’s official residence over the course of the night, growing ever more impatient for news from Rosselló.
Rows of riot police blocked the street to the residence, named “The Fortress,” in preparation for what some thought could become a night of confrontation if Rosselló did not step down.
At around 10.30 p.m. organizers told the crowds to sit down and hold a minute’s silence for the more than 3,000 people killed on the island during 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
On previous nights, riot police have moved in at 11 p.m. with tear gas to disperse protesters calling for Rosselló’s resignation or impeachment.
Mendez launched the impeachment process on Wednesday after an independent panel of lawyers commissioned by Mendez to investigate the messages found four felonies and one misdemeanor may have been committed during the online chats, one of the lawyers, Luis Rodríguez-Rivera, said in an email.
The island of 3.2 million people has been rocked by multiple crises in recent years, including a 2017 bankruptcy filing to restructure $120 billion in debt and pension obligations.
The leak of the chat messages was the final straw for Puerto Ricans angered by recent corruption charges against former administration officials and Rosselló’s handling of hurricane recovery efforts.
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.
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, Cynthia Osterman and Michael Perry)