Former President Donald Trump's administration obstructed an investigation into why $20 billion in hurricane relief funds for the US island of Puerto Rico were withheld following a devastating hurricanes in 2017, according to a newly released document from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Inspector General.
The report found that a frayed relationship between HUD and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) led to a "delay of at least several weeks in HUD's administration of disaster-relief funds intended for Puerto Rico and several other disaster grantee jurisdictions."
In 2018, OMB began requiring HUD to provide grant â€˜notices' to be approved, slowing the process down considerably. In the past, this review process was not required.
According to the document, then-HUD Deputy Secretary Brian Montgomery told Russell Vought, the director of the OMB at the time, that his office was effectively holding disaster relief funds "hostage."
In 2019, Congress requested an investigation into the delay of funds after the hurricanes, which left residents without power and potable water for several months.
Former HUD Secretary Ben Carson - a former presidential candidate - and another senior official declined to speak to investigators. The report added that access to requested HUD information was delayed, or denied, several times, with a number of officials refusing to provide information.
"Delays and denials of access and refusals to cooperate negatively affected the ability of [investigators] to conduct this review," the report noted.
Stan Gimont, a senior official, said that the review process was "kind of like Groundhog Day, just keeps coming back. And that's...where your frustration will set in. It's almost like we're going to keep bringing this back to you until you just eat it."
In 2019, President Trump reportedly repeatedly complained about what he considered wasteful spending on Puerto Rico - which is a territory of the US, although not a state - and said that any funds provided should be closely monitored because of corruption. At one point, the Washington Post reported that Trump said he wanted no money to go to Puerto Rico, with more going to Texas and Florida instead.
Om a statement, the Office of the Inspector General said that its role in the investigation "was not to opine on the appropriateness of any OMB or White House officials' actions, as our oversight authority does not extend to their conduct."
Earlier this week, HUD announced $8.2 billion in funds for Puerto Rico.
"Since its first days, the Biden-Harris administration has prioritized action to enable stronger recovery for Puerto Rico," she said in a statement. "The actions taken by HUD today will unlock access to funds needs to recover from past disaster and buid resilience to future storms, while ensuring transparency and accountability. We are committed to an ongoing partnership with Puerto Rico to empower the island's communities and help them build back better."
The news comes as two separate proposals are being discussed that would lead to a Puerto Rico becoming a state.
In March, congresswomen Nydia VelÃ¡zquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, repeatedly noted that the repeated failures of the Trump administration to help Puerto Rico made the case for self-determination more clear.
"We have seen the financial crisis, the earthquake (in January 2020) and the inability of Puerto Rico to deal with that," VelÃ¡zquez said.
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