October 18, 2017

Puerto Rican Gov. Rosselló to visit White House, Capitol Hill on Thursday

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@alextdaugherty 

Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló will visit the White House and Capitol Hill on Thursday as the U.S. territory pushes Washington for billions in aid after Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage nearly a month ago. 

"Looking ahead to tomorrow, we will be welcoming Governor Rosselló of Puerto Rico to the White House to talk about the ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. "We will continue working hand-in-hand with local leaders in all areas of our country that have been impacted by several natural disasters in recent months. As President Trump has repeated sand -- said, we stand with our fellow citizens. We're here to help and get them back on their feet." 

Rosselló is seeking $4.9 billion in federal disaster loans, and $1.2 billion for nutrition assistance, along with money for short and long-term storm relief. The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a hurricane aid package later this week after the House approved a $36.5 aid package for hurricane and wildfire relief last week. 

President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, among others, have visited Puerto Rico as it struggles to rebuild after Hurricane Maria knocked out power and running water to most of the island. Rosselló has been largely supportive of Trump's handling of the relief effort, while other Puerto Rican politicians like San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz have sharply criticized the federal disaster response. 

 

 

 

Senate committee to investigate Florida nursing home deaths

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via @learyreports

The Senate Finance Committee will investigate the hurricane-related deaths of 14 people at a South Florida nursing home.

The top members of the committee, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today questioned the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services about its new nursing home emergency preparedness requirements and have requested responses from state agencies in Florida and Texas regarding their preparations and responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“We are writing to request information from Florida about its preparations for and responses to Hurricane Irma as it relates to nursing homes and other similar facilities,” the senators wrote in a letter to Florida’s Secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, Justin Senior.

“The Senate Committee on Finance has jurisdiction over both the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs. As part of our oversight responsibilities, we want to ensure the safety of residents and patients in nursing homes and other similar facilities during natural and manmade disasters.”

The action follows a call for investigation from Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the committee, and that was echoed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

Nelson has questioned Gov. Rick Scott, a potential 2018 election rival, after the governor personally received calls for assistance from the nursing home. Scott has insisted the calls were properly routed and that the nursing home had an obligation to call 911 after losing power.

Crist's visit to a Florida eye doctor comes up in Menendez's corruption trial

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@alextdaugherty

The federal corruption trial into New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen added a new character on Tuesday: current Florida congressman and former Gov. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg.

Crist's unannounced 2010 visit to Melgen's home is being used by Menendez's defense team to show that the New Jersey senator was engaged in a political, not personal, relationship when the eye doctor paid for Menendez's flight from New Jersey to Florida. 

Crist, a former Republican who was running as an independent for U.S. Senate in 2010, visited Melgen's home in Palm Beach County on the weekend of Oct. 9, 2010, the same weekend that federal prosecutors allege that Melgen bribed Menendez by paying for his flight on a private jet. 

Melgen's wife, Flor Melgen, testified in federal court on Tuesday that Crist showed up to their home, but Salomon wasn't there. 

“He was looking for my husband. He knew that my husband was Bob’s friend, and he was wondering if he might be with him,” Flor Melgen testified. “I didn’t know he was going to spend the night at my home and I wasn’t prepared.”

Crist dined with Flor and her family before meeting Salomon later in the evening. 

“I had to order food because there was no food prepared at my house,” Flor Melgen said.

Crist was in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign against Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek at the time, a race eventually won by Rubio. Crist's spokesperson said in an email to the Miami Herald that his visit to Melgen's house was political in nature. 

"The Congressman was a candidate for the U.S. Senate at the time, meeting with a potential donor," said Crist spokesperson Erin Moffet

Federal prosecutors allege that Salomon Melgen supplied Menendez with private flights, hotel stays, vacations and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in exchange for official favors. Menendez is a Cuban-American New Jersey Democrat who frequently sides with Miami Republicans that favor a hard line against Cuba. 

Defense attorneys argued that Menendez's Oct. 2010 trip to Florida was political in nature and used Crist's visit to back up their theory. If the trip was political, defense attorneys argue that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee should have reimbursed Melgen instead of Menendez paying for the trip himself.

After Crist spent the night at Melgen's house, he wrote a $100 check to cover his visit, according to Flor Melgen. 

"I was very surprised when he gave me the check," Melgen said. "I asked him why, and he told me it was because of the dinner and because he spent the night at my house."

Prosecutor Monique Abrishami used Crist's check as a way to further bash Menendez during cross-examination. 

“This is a check from Charlie Crist to your husband?” Abrishami said.

“Yes,” Flor Melgen said.

“So at least this politician knows how to pay you back for things?” Abrishami said.

Federal judge William Walls then instructed the jury to ignore Abrishami's remark. 

"What lawyers [do] from time to time...is engage in the practice of a ‘throwaway question," Walls said. "A throwaway question is one that the questioner knows obviously is objectionable and he or she wants to make a point." 

Earlier this week, Walls allowed the trial to proceed on all charges after Menendez's defense team attempted to have the most serious charges thrown out. 

October 12, 2017

Rubio, Frederica Wilson call for federal investigation into nursing homes in Florida, Puerto Rico

Marco Rubio

@alextdaugherty 

Sen. Marco Rubio is asking the Senate Finance Committee to investigate the oversight of nursing homes in Florida and Puerto Rico after 14 people died at a Hollywood nursing home after Hurricane Irma. 

Rubio sent a letter on Thursday to Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the leading members of the Senate committee responsible for oversight of Medicare and Medicaid. 

"As the chairman and ranking member of the committee with jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid, I implore you to investigate the failures that occurred at this nursing home and others throughout the country, particularly in Florida and Puerto Rico, to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future," Rubio said in the letter. "Additionally, I respectfully request that you consider examining other ways in which Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries were impacted by these storms and how better planning and coordination between the federal, state, and local government could mitigate harm caused by hurricanes." 

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, whose district contains the Hollywood nursing home, also called for a federal investigation during a meeting between Florida's congressional delegation and Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday. She plans to introduce legislation that would require nursing homes and long term care facilities that receive federal funding to have generators. 

"We have to do everything we can to keep all these individuals safe," Scott said. "We live in a peninsula, we are going to have hurricanes, we've got to be prepared." 

"While this terrible tragedy is currently under investigation, it has been widely reported that these individuals were left in sweltering conditions after the nursing facility’s air conditioning system lost power," Rubio said. "This has shocked the state of Florida, and rightfully raised questions about the oversight of nursing homes, particularly the enforcement of existing emergency preparedness requirements." 

October 05, 2017

Repealing the Jones Act would help Puerto Rico. But it could hurt Florida.

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@alextdaugherty 

As the debate over the Jones Act rages in the nation’s capital, lawmakers from Florida are faced with a difficult choice.

While Democrats and Republicans from Florida are urging the federal government to do everything in their power to help Puerto Rico, they are also beneficiaries of a law that protects Florida’s shipping industry at the expense of the island, a political quandary in a state with over 1 million Puerto Rican residents.

Pushing for a permanent repeal of the Jones Act would undoubtedly win the support of the state’s Puerto Rican community and voters sympathetic to hurricane recovery efforts, but it could hurt the state’s domestic shipping industry and thousands of jobs.

The domestic shipping industry is an economic behemoth in Florida, contributing 52,140 maritime jobs and $9.6 billion to Florida’s economy, according to a 2014 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The Port of Jacksonville is the nation’s hub for Jones Act shipping to Puerto Rico, and Florida ranks second among all states in jobs affected by the domestic maritime industry.

“Our top priority is ensuring the people of Puerto Rico have the resources they need to recover and rebuild both in the short and long term,” said Rep. John Rutherford, R-Jacksonville. “JAXPORT and the maritime industry in Northeast Florida are critically important to these efforts and have been for decades. The Jones Act reinforces this commerce by promoting investments in infrastructure that ensure shipments travel reliability between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico quickly.”
 
The Jones Act is a 1920 law that requires U.S. ships transporting goods within the country to be built, owned and operated by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Opponents of the Jones Act, including New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez and Arizona Sen. John McCain, argue that the law makes goods more expensive on islands like Puerto Rico, therefore making it harder for the U.S. territory to recover from Hurricane Maria.

“Our legislation would permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, an antiquated, protectionist law that has driven up costs and crippled Puerto Rico’s economy,” McCain said in a statement after he introduced a bill that would repeal the Jones Act in Puerto Rico last week. “For years, I have fought to fully repeal the Jones Act, which has long outlived its purpose to the benefit of special interests.”

After a week of intense public pressure, President Donald Trump suspended the Jones Act in Puerto Rico for 10 days last Wednesday, though he said “we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry who don't want the Jones Act lifted.”

Rep. Darren Soto, the first Puerto Rican in Congress from Florida, acknowledged the difficulties of a long-term Jones Act repeal. He wants the Trump administration to pursue an additional temporary suspension of the Jones Act instead of a full repeal.

“Over the long term I don’t think its an all-or-nothing deal,” Soto said. “It’s one of those issues where Florida benefits under the Jones Act and Puerto Rico does not. We don’t have to get rid of the Jones Act or have it go away, but 10 days is going to be insufficient. I expect we'll need emergency services for over a month or so, so we’re going to need a longer waiver than that.”

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, suspending the Jones Act became a rallying cry for lawmakers from both parties.

“The Jones Act... makes everything more expensive,” said Velázquez. “One of the biggest issues we have right now is the availability of fuel in Puerto Rico.”

 

Read more here.

September 28, 2017

Rubio urges Trump to put Pentagon in charge of recovery in Puerto Rico

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@francoordonez @alextdaugherty 

As the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico spirals, Sen. Marco Rubio urged President Donald Trump to put the U.S. military in charge of recovery efforts on the island.

The Florida Republican said the government in Puerto Rico does not have the capacity — in money, staff or even communications resources — to lead such a massive effort as more than 3 million American citizens struggle amid rapidly deteriorating conditions.

Rubio, who has emerged in recent months as a key advisor to the president on Latin American issues, said the Defense Department is the only institution with the organizational capabilities and logistics skills needed to confront the devastation.

“This is what they do,” Rubio said Thursday. “They’re the best responders to natural disasters on the planet. And we need to employ them.”

Rubio, who clearly has the president’s ear, is leading a growing chorus of politicians who have become dissatisfied with the Trump administration’s response more than a week after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm. Puerto Rico is now suffering food shortages and is at risk of disease outbreak, and both local and federal officials are pressuring the Trump administration to dramatically ramp up its efforts.
 
“I would like to see the fire and fury of this administration when it comes to a rescue effort,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

Read more here.

September 27, 2017

Bob Menendez says White House blocked a planned trip to Puerto Rico with Marco Rubio

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@alextdaugherty 

A New Jersey Democrat is not happy that the Trump administration is reportedly barring lawmaker travel to Puerto Rico as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. 

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that at least 10 lawmakers were hoping to go to Puerto Rico aboard military aircraft over the weekend on a trip organized by Sen. Bob Menendez, but they were stopped by the White House and Pentagon. The administration officials said lawmaker travel at this time would impede relief efforts, according to the Post. 

After the Post piece was published, Menendez said on Twitter that he was planning to travel with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of only a handful of lawmakers who have visited Puerto Rico since the storm hit. 

"Over a dozen members of Congress say they’d join Marco Rubio & I to head to Puerto Rico to assess disaster response," Menendez tweeted. "Restricting us doesn’t serve millions in NJ & across U.S. waiting to get a hold of their families. These are Americans who need our help. We will not back down!" 

After visiting Puerto Rico and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Monday, Rubio met with Vice President Mike Pence and other top FEMA officials on Tuesday to relay his concerns about the humanitarian situation throughout the territory.  

“I'm concerned about human suffering and potential loss of life if aid doesn't reach the places it needs to reach quickly enough,” Rubio said. “I hope that we don't see Katrina-like images.”

President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday, and he said that was the earliest possible day he could visit without hampering relief efforts. The Post reported that lawmakers have been barred from traveling on military planes to Puerto Rico since Monday evening. 

Menendez's office confirmed that the New Jersey senator was working with Republicans to organize a trip. 

"I can confirm that Senator Menendez is the lead member organizing a bipartisan CODEL to Puerto Rico with several members," Menendez spokesman Juan Pachon said in an email. "Our office is now trying to figure out alternatives to make this happen as the situation on the island is extremely dire." 

Rubio acknowledged the logistical constraints of travel to the island in a Facebook video on Wednesday. 

“I tried to get there Friday last week and it wasn’t possible for a lot of reasons," Rubio said. "I want people to understand, when you think about some of these trips, you have an airport, and the airport can only take X number of flights a day, and so if I get on an airplane and fly in there, that’s one less flight that can land with food or medicine or personnel, and so we didn’t want to be in the way.”

Planes can only land once every 15 minutes in San Juan according to Rubio, and the lack of flights is an obstacle for getting aid into the territory. Rubio's office sent four staffers to the island on Wednesday to assist with recovery efforts.

Menendez and Rubio are the leading members of the Senate subcommittee that oversees Western Hemisphere affairs. Menendez is currently on trial for corruption in New Jersey. 

One lawmaker, Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, plans to travel to Puerto Rico this weekend. But he is traveling on a commercial flight and not a military plane, according to the Post. 

"I hope to return to Puerto Rico here in the next couple days if possible with some of my colleagues to begin what we can do to kind of break down barriers and help deliver aid,” Rubio said. 

September 26, 2017

Lawmakers warn Trump: Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands could become Katrina-like disaster

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@alextdaugherty 

The Trump administration’s response to the hurricanes that ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could become a Hurricane Katrina-like political disaster if he does not respond to the storms’ aftermath more decisively, congressional lawmakers from both parties warned Tuesday.

“I'm concerned about human suffering and potential loss of life if aid doesn't reach the places it needs to reach quickly enough,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who spent Monday in San Juan with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “I hope that we don't see Katrina-like images.”

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., one of five Puerto Ricans in Congress, warned Trump that “If you don’t take this crisis seriously, this is going to be your Katrina.”

 

President George W. Bush’s response to Katrina, which devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, was criticized as initially weak and insensitive.

Bush did a flyover in Air Force One to survey the damage rather than land, a move that he described in 2010 as a “huge mistake.”
When Bush did visit the area, he praised the much-maligned performance of then-FEMA Secretary Michael Brown.

“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” Bush said as water and provisions were in short supply for New Orleans survivors of the storm.

Tuesday, lawmakers delivered the dire message to the White House following a Monday night tweet by Trump in which he spoke about the devastation in Puerto Rico but also mentioned the island’s debt crisis.

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” the president wrote.

Read more here.

Democrats beg Trump to appoint a general in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

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@alextdaugherty

Donald Trump’s tweets usually invoke silence, sarcasm or support from lawmakers, but something very different happened on Tuesday.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a New York Democrat and one of the longest-serving Puerto Ricans in Congress, nearly broke down in tears as she responded to Trump’s tweet that Puerto Rico was in “deep trouble” and burdened with debt after Hurricane Maria.

 

 

 

After 11 seconds of silence, during which Velázquez was consoled by Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York, she tore into the president’s first series of tweets on Puerto Rico that came after Trump spent days blasting the National Football League.

“I feel offended and insulted to see a type of tweet from the president blaming the people of Puerto Rico for a natural disaster and then the public debt,” Velázquez said. “We are better than that and I expect more from our president. Right now this is a matter of life and death.”

Democrats on Tuesday had a clear message for the Trump administration nearly one week after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands: Appoint a general and send in the troops.

“We’re looking for a more robust response,” said Democratic Caucus chairman Rep. Joe Crowley. “We need a general to be put in place. We know that (former Homeland Security) secretary (John) Kelly knows these islands like no one else. He understands the structure of them, he knows how to get equipment into them. But we need to see that overwhelming response.”

Crowley and other Democrats aren’t pleased with the White House’s response to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands so far, citing logistical snafus like a medical ship intended for Puerto Rico that is still docked in Norfolk, Virginia.

“Unfortunately, what we‘ve seen from the White House over the weekend has been a diversion, a distraction to nonsensical issues,” Crowley said.

Clarke cautioned that Hurricanes Maria and Irma could be Trump’s Hurricane Katrina, a reference to the 2005 storm that killed hundreds in Louisiana after the federal government botched relief efforts.

“I recognize and recall with horror what happened with Hurricane Katrina,” Clarke said. “This is Katrina times six and we have got to really make sure the U.S. government uses everything at its disposal to move into that region and begin to employ life-saving measures.”

The need for military intervention in the U.S. territories is particularly important according to Clarke because there were six major islands that were devastated by the two hurricanes, meaning an insufficient federal response will lead to six Katrina-like situations.

“That means that each island has been decimated,” Clarke said. “People speak of Puerto Rico and they speak of the main island but there are two other islands. Likewise, with the Virgin Islands you have St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.”

Read more here.

September 25, 2017

FEMA has money to spend in Puerto Rico, but Congress will need to act soon

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@alextdaugherty 

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico less than a week ago, but the Federal Emergency Management Administration has more relief funding available than it did after Hurricane Harvey.

After Harvey hit the Houston area, Congress passed a $15.25 billion hurricane relief bill when President Donald Trump struck a deal with Democrats. FEMA was only a few days away from running out of money.

Nearly half of the hurricane relief package that passed in early September, $7.4 billion, is going to FEMA, allowing it to stay afloat while it responds to the crisis in Puerto Rico and cleanup in Florida after Hurricane Irma. A FEMA spokesperson told the Miami Herald that the agency has just over $5 billion in uncommitted disaster relief money as of Monday morning.

That money won’t last long. Congress will likely need to pass additional funding bills to manage long-term recovery efforts in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico before the end of the year.

“Our focus is still continuing to be on the life-saving efforts and the immediate disaster response efforts which are still currently under way,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
 
A Republican staffer with knowledge of the appropriations process said that federal funding for hurricane relief will be “fine until mid-October” and that Congress will likely vote on an additional funding bill in the next three weeks.

“Congress has done its job,” the staffer said.

But Congress only supplies the money. It’s up to local and federal agencies to effectively manage it after a hurricane.

On Monday, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson called on the U.S. military to provide more search-and-rescue teams to Puerto Rico. Nelson said last week it will cost much more than $15 billion to manage relief efforts in Florida and Puerto Rico.

 

The White House said Monday that it’s doing everything possible to manage the short-term response in Puerto Rico. Homeland security adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA administrator Brock Long arrived in Puerto Rico on Monday to assess the situation and will inform the White House about what is needed most.

But short-term efforts like search-and-rescue missions or restoring Puerto Rico’s power grid are different than long-term projects like hardening the power grid to ensure it can withstand a major hurricane. The FEMA money focuses on the short-term effort, but months from now Republicans and Democrats will inevitably debate the merits of long-term relief for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Texas has 38 votes in Congress and Florida has 29, and if they stick together the majority-Republican states can be an important voting bloc in a contentious negotiation.

In contrast, Puerto Rico has one non-voting delegate.

Read more here.