February 11, 2020

Warren, Colleagues Seek Probe into Whether Trump Administration's Delay of Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery Funds Violated Same Law as Delay of Ukraine Security Aid

Over Two Years after Hurricane Maria, Only $1.5 Billion of $19.9 Billion Appropriated for Puerto Rico through a HUD Program Has Reached the Island; GAO Recently Found Trump Administration Broke Law by Delaying Congressionally Appropriated Security Aid to Ukraine

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. -- United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), along with Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Representatives Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), Darren Soto (D-Fla.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), wrote to the Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General (HUD OIG) requesting an inquiry into whether the Trump administration's delay in releasing emergency relief funds appropriated by Congress for Puerto Rico violated the Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, only $1.5 billion of the $19.9 billion appropriated by Congress for Puerto Rico through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program has reached the island.

"Rather than legitimate process delays or Congressionally-imposed conditions, these delays, unique to Puerto Rico, seem to reflect President Trump's personal policy preferences and biases against Puerto Rico," the lawmakers wrote.

While Congress has made three separate appropriations to the CDBG-DR grant program to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricanes Maria and Irma--which devastated the island, wiping out roads, shutting down electricity, and destroying an unknown number of buildings on the island--Puerto Rico has experienced unusually long delays in accessing these funds. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which administers the CDBG-DR program, has taken unprecedented actions to delay disbursing funding to Puerto Rico in a way that is inconsistent with the agency's processes for other comparable disasters. HUD intentionally missed a Congressionally-mandated deadline for publishing the rules for one set of grants, and money for a second set of grants has yet to reach Puerto Rico even though HUD approved Puerto Rico's plan for deploying the funds on March 3, 2019. 

In their letter, the lawmakers expressed concern with the delays in disbursing these funds, and cited an opinion issued last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the Trump administration violated the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 by delaying security assistance to Ukraine that was appropriated by Congress. The GAO reasoned that "(f)aithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law."

"We are deeply concerned that the Trump administration is similarly violating the ICA by withholding emergency assistance from Puerto Rico because of the President's 'policy priorities,' even after the Puerto Rican government has fulfilled all the requirements for obtaining aid and without notifying Congress," the lawmakers continued.

To address their concerns, the lawmakers asked the HUD OIG to conduct a review of whether the long delay in disbursement of funds to Puerto Rico violated the Impoundment Control Act of 1974.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition also expressed concern over the administration's delay of Puerto Rico aid: "For two years, HUD Secretary Ben Carson wrongfully withheld critical mitigation and disaster recovery funding approved by Congress for Puerto Rico. While the administration now claims that it will release the funds, it has proposed steep restrictions that could promote the interests of investors over Puerto Ricans, undermine living wage standards, lead to further displacement, and set up pretenses for additional delays by HUD. I thank Senator Warren for working to hold the Trump administration accountable for these outrageous delays and its willingness to put the lives of U.S. citizens at risk." -- Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition

Following recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico, Senator Warren and Representatives Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) also urged President Trump to fully fund emergency response in Puerto Rico, noting the challenging situation and extensive damage on the island. Senator Warren also joined colleagues in urging President Trump to support Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez's request and issue a major disaster declaration for the widespread damage caused by the earthquakes. Following Hurricane Maria and President Trump's major disaster declaration for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in September 2017, Senator Warren signed a letter urging the administration to adjust the federal cost-share of Public Assistance grants to 100%. For more information about her extensive work fighting for robust recovery efforts for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, visit www.warren.senate.gov/puertorico.