Federal watchdog launches investigation into potential “interference” in the distribution of millions of dollars in aid money to Puerto Rico

Posted on: March 26th, 2019 by ABC News No Comments

cestes001/iStock(WASHINGTON) — A government watchdog has launched an investigation into potential “interference” in the distribution of millions of dollars in aid money to Puerto Rico, a senior official told Congress on Tuesday.

The inquiry was initiated earlier this year after Democrats raised concerns that President Donald Trump purposefully tried to steer money away from the island, possibly in favor of more politically friendly red states like Texas and Alabama that also have suffered natural disasters.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, was hit by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, causing some $100 billion in damage.

Jeremy Kirkland, general counsel to the Inspector General’s office at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said his office initiated the review at the request of Congress. HUD and the governor Puerto Rico agreed last fall to some $1.5 billion in housing and other assistance to the island in response to hurricane damage.

The HUD inspector general doesn’t have the power to investigate the White House, but it would likely be able to review executive orders given to the agency.

“We’re in the process of looking into whether or not there has been any interference and do plan to report back to Congress on what we find,” he told the House Financial Services Committee.

Kirkland suggested the probe would be limited by the office’s jurisdiction.

“Where we can, we have asked those questions” about interference, he said.

Trump has publicly accused local leaders in Puerto Rico of mismanaging funds, an allegation they deny. He also has threatened to cut off disaster aid for California – a blue state – while insisting that federal emergency officials must give “A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama,” following last year’s tornado damage.

Last fall, Trump tweeted that Puerto Rico was using disaster relief “to pay off other obligations.”

“The U.S. will not bail out long outstanding & unpaid obligations with hurricane relief money!” he wrote.

Democratic Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez of New York, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, and Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona pushed for the internal investigation in a letter to the inspector general last January. According to the letter, HUD allocated $20 billion in disaster recovery grants.

 But despite agency approval, “we understand that HUD has yet to make little of these funds available,” the lawmakers said.

Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló has asked to meet personally with Trump. He says his administration has been “diligent” in its management of aid but is struggling with extreme poverty.

“There is a patent, severe lack of knowledge regarding the inequalities sustained by the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and of the use of the recovery funding in all the reports that have been attributed to your administration,” he said in a recent Facebook message.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced March 1 that the agency had approved a plan to distribute aid to Puerto Rico but with “tight fiscal controls.”

“This is an unprecedented investment and since Puerto Rico has a history of fiscal malfeasance, we are putting additional financial controls in place to ensure this disaster recovery money is spent properly,” Carson said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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