New probe confirms Trump officials blocked Puerto Rico from receiving hurricane aid

The administration of former President Donald Trump obstructed an investigation wanting into why officials withheld about $20 billion in hurricane aid for Puerto Rico following the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, one of many deadliest U.S. pure disasters in over 100 years, a brand new report says.

A Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General report made public Thursday additionally discovered that tensions between the division and the Office of Management and Budget resulted in unprecedented procedural hurdles that produced delays within the disbursement of the congressionally accredited funds.

It all began after 2018 when OMB started requiring HUD to ship grant notices for catastrophe funds by means of an interagency overview course of for approval, making it arduous for HUD to publish the notices wanted to unlock funding in a well timed method. Investigators discovered that OMB had by no means earlier than required such a overview course of for a discover allocating restoration funds.

Former HUD Deputy Secretary Brian Montgomery instructed investigators a couple of cellphone name he had with then-OMB Director Russell Vought through which Montgomery instructed Vought the actions from his workplace had been equal to holding disaster-relief funds “hostage,” based on the report.

Investigators stated they had been unable to acquire testimonies from officials who ordered the interagency overview course of. Former HUD Secretary Ben Carson and one other former HUD official additionally declined to be interviewed by investigators.

Access to HUD data was delayed or denied a number of instances all through the course of the investigation, the report stated, and several other former senior administration officials on the OMB refused to supply requested details about their decision-making course of in regard to the Puerto Rico aid funds.

However, investigators had been capable of interview 20 present and former HUD officials and two Puerto Rico housing officials.

The Office of Inspector General said its oversight authorities don’t enable for a overview or official opinion of actions taken by Trump administration officials.

Image: President Trump walks previous hurricane wreckage as he visits areas broken by Hurricane Maria in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file)

The Trump administration’s OMB additionally insisted on overhauls to Puerto Rico’s property administration data, suspension of its minimal wage on federal contracts and different stipulations to entry aid funds, based on the report. Some HUD officials anxious such necessities had been probably past HUD’s authority to impose on grantees.

The Office of Inspector General started the overview in March 2019 after Congress requested it to look into hurricane aid delays because the island sought to recuperate from a storm that resulted within the deaths of 2,975 people and triggered the world’s second-longest blackout.

Seven months after the probe was launched, two prime HUD officials admitted to knowingly missing the congressionally mandated deadline to subject a discover that may have unlocked billions in federal restoration funds to Puerto Rico. Carson later defended his agency’s actions by echoing Trump speaking factors — citing concerns about corruption, fiscal irregularities and “Puerto Rico’s capacity to manage these funds.”

Throughout his time period, Trump repeatedly opposed catastrophe funding for Puerto Rico whereas disputing and failing to acknowledge Maria’s death toll. Trump had additionally told top White House officials “that he did not want a single dollar going to Puerto Rico,” the Washington Post reported in 2019. “Instead, he wanted more of the money to go to Texas and Florida.”

Under Trump, Congress had accredited a complete of $20 billion in HUD funds for Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane reconstruction, a historic quantity. But the company stalled the release of the aid in 2019 and imposed additional restrictions and necessities final yr on how Puerto Rico may acquire entry to the funds, citing corruption and financial mismanagement concerns.

Office of Inspector General audits printed final yr discovered that Puerto Rico must have a greater system for requesting and monitoring federal grants to rebuild after Hurricane Maria — however Texas and Florida had comparable points and their funds were not held up after natural disasters.

Image: Blue tarps given out by FEMA cover several roofs two years after Hurricane Maria affected the island in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 18, 2019. (Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images file)

Image: Blue tarps given out by FEMA cowl a number of roofs two years after Hurricane Maria affected the island in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 18, 2019. (Ricardo Arduengo / AFP – Getty Images file)

The newest probe comes two days after President Joe Biden’s administration removed Trump-era restrictions unique to Puerto Rico limiting its potential to entry restoration funds by means of HUD. The company additionally unlocked entry to $8.2 billion in Community Development Block Grant Mitigation funds to assist the island construct resiliency towards future disasters. The aid was accredited by Congress in 2018.

Biden eradicated restrictions requiring incremental grant obligations, a federal monetary monitor to oversee the aid and extra oversight from the island’s federally imposed monetary oversight board, in accordance new HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge.

The federal authorities has allotted almost $69 billion to assist the island recuperate from Maria in addition to other disasters which have hit the island over the previous few years. But a lot of the cash, particularly funds for housing and infrastructure aid, hasn’t made its technique to communities on the island. Puerto Rico has obtained $19 billion, based on the Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency.

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