SAN JUAN, Aug 1 (Reuters) - Puerto Rico’s political crisis risked deepening on Thursday as lawmakers and street protesters opposed the Washington corporate lawyer tapped to replace disgraced Governor Ricardo Rosselló.
A day before Rosselló was set to resign over offensive chat messages that sparked mass protests, some members of his party vowed to reject his chosen successor, Pedro Pierluisi, largely over conflict of interest concerns.
Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets to demand Rosselló quit after the leaked messages unleashed rage over suspected administration corruption, slow recovery from 2017’s deadly hurricanes and the U.S. territory’s bankruptcy.
Rosselló called a special session of Puerto Rico’s legislature on Thursday for lawmakers to vote on Pierluisi as secretary of state, and therefore next in line to succeed him.
Members of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (PNP) said Pierluisi’s role as a lawyer for law firm O’Neill & Borges advising the federally created financial oversight board directing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy disqualified him for the job.
Street protesters accused Pierluisi of serving the interests of Puerto Rico’s political elite, not the people’s, in helping establish the widely-disliked board when serving as the island’s delegate to the U.S. Congress, then representing it as a lawyer.
Pierluisi released a statement saying he had “listened to the people’s messages, their demonstrations,” and he would “only answer to the people.”
The speaker of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, Carlos Méndez said he favored Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, also of the PNP, as secretary of state over Pierluisi, citing the lawyer’s role at O’Neill & Borges.
Mendez suggested Pierluisi did not have the votes in the lower house to be confirmed.
But in a sign of divisions, several PNP legislators including Yashira Lebrón and Luis Perez Ortiz told newspaper El Nuevo Dia they backed Pierluisi.
And Ramón Luis Rivera, PNP mayor of Puerto Rico’s second-largest city Bayamón, threw his weight behind the 60-year-old former attorney general.
“It’s time to put Puerto Rico FIRST and end the uncertainty we’re engulfed in,” Rivera tweeted. “Let’s give the governor’s nominee, Pedro Pierluisi, a chance.”
The island’s legislature will convene at 2 p.m. to consider the nomination, with Pierluisi needing a majority of votes to be confirmed. (Reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz and Camilo Cohecha in San Juan, Nick Brown in New York and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Grant McCool)