Puerto Rico governor faces calls for impeachment over chats

(Reuters) – Puerto Rico’s embattled governor came under growing pressure to resign or be impeached on Friday after the leak of hundreds of vulgar and offensive chat messages, as the Caribbean island’s trade unions staged another protest march in San Juan.

Police officers stand guard during the seventh day of protest calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico July 19, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Governor Ricardo Rossello has faced a week of sometimes violent street protests demanding he step down over the messages about political adversaries.

The chats on a private Telegram group were published on Saturday, adding to Rossello’s woes the same week two of his former officials were arrested by the FBI as part of a federal corruption probe in the bankrupt U.S. territory.

The 889 pages of messages revealed by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism showed how Rossello and advisers exchanged memes and comments that were derogatory, misogynistic and homophobic, as well as privileged information.

The governor on Friday agreed to convene an emergency meeting with members of his political party after a string of U.S. Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers called for his ouster.

In a report published on Friday, Puerto Rico’s influential bar association cited clear grounds to impeach the 40-year-old former scientist, based on the “depravity” of the messages. The group’s president, Edgardo Roman, recommended the island’s legislature begin the process.

“According to the analysis we’ve done on the contents of the chats made public, we understand that it is appropriate to start said impeachment process,” the report said.

Puerto Rico has never carried out a political impeachment, according to legal experts, and while opposition legislators back the process it has yet to gain critical support from lawmakers in Rossello’s governing PNP party.

Friday’s march was set to begin at 5 p.m. ET and head to the governor’s San Juan residence. Another demonstration is planned for Monday. Anti-Rossello protesters overturned barricades and police fired tear gas to break up a large demonstration on Wednesday night.

The political turmoil comes at a critical stage in the U.S. territory’s bankruptcy. It has also raised concerns with U.S. lawmakers who are weighing the island’s requests for billions of federal dollars for healthcare and for recovery efforts following devastating hurricanes in 2017.

Rossello has apologized for the messages, saying they were “inappropriate” but not “illegal,” and on Friday sent tweets showing him carrying out business as usual.

Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Mendez on Friday announced the creation of an independent committee to determine whether Rossello engaged in illegal activity in the chats.

Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico and Karen Pierog in Chicago, additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan; Editing by Richard Chang

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