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Puerto Rico gov apologizes for derogatory comment about female official in private chat

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico’s governor apologized late Thursday for profanity-laced comments he made in a private chat to describe a former New York City female government official and a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he was working 18-hour days and releasing tensions when he called former New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito the Spanish word for “whore” and in English told the board “go f— yourself” followed by a string of emojis with the middle finger raised.

“None of this justifies the words I’ve written,” he said in reference to excerpts from a chat extracted from a messaging system used by government officials that were published by local media. “My apologies to all the people I have offended… This was a private chat.”

The comments drew the ire of many Puerto Ricans who said they were ashamed of his language and of how this might affect the reputation of the U.S. territory, which had already come under scrutiny earlier this week with the arrests of former government officials including the island’s education secretary.

Rosselló said he had not yet spoken to Mark-Viverito, who posted a lengthy statement on Twitter that read in part, “A person who uses that language against a woman, whether a public figure or not, should not govern Puerto Rico …this type of behavior is completely unacceptable.”

In the chat, Rosselló wrote that he was upset Mark-Viverito had criticized Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, for supporting statehood for Puerto Rico.

Those who participated in the chat included Ricardo Llerandi, Puerto Rico’s Chief of Staff, Christian Sobrino, executive director of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority; and Ramón Rosario, former public affairs secretary. Rosselló said the entire chat, which has not been released publicly, has since been erased and that he does not know who leaked part of it.

Rosselló spoke a day after FBI agents arrested Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary, and five other people on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors.

Officials said the alleged fraud involves $15.5 million worth of federal funding issued between 2017 and 2019. They said $13 million was spent by Puerto Rico’s Department of Education while Keleher was secretary and another $2.5 million spent by Ángela Ávila Marrero when she was director of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration. Ávila Marrero was charged along with businessmen Fernando Scherrer-Caillet and Alberto Velázquez-Piñol, and education contractors Glenda E. Ponce-Mendoza and Mayra Ponce-Mendoza, who are sisters.

Officials said there was no evidence that Keleher or Ávila-Marrero had personally benefited from the scheme.

“I am ashamed to have to listen to the allegations that have been made against former public officials,” Rosselló said. “It is simply unacceptable, it is unprecedented what our people have had to go through.”

Earlier Thursday evening, a group of protesters had gathered at Puerto Rico’s main international airport to received Rosselló as he cut a European vacation short to address the arrests and the leaked chat. The protesters then traveled to the governor’s seaside mansion where Rosselló spoke late Thursday and demanded his resignation.

“He’s not a person of worth to be governing Puerto Rico,” said Vanesa Contreras, one of the protesters. “We deserve better.”

Rosselló said he would not resign and that he was focused on implementing anti-corruption measures, although he did not provide details.

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