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HUD inspector general’s office says it’ll look into whether White House interfered with Puerto Rico disaster aid

An aerial view of the Amelia neighborhood east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in June 2018. (Dennis M. Rivera/AP)

The inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development will review whether the White House has interfered with hurricane relief funding approved for Puerto Rico, an island still trying to recover from the impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017, as part of a broader examination of the agency’s administration of disaster grants, a HUD inspector general attorney said Tuesday.

Jeremy Kirkland, counsel to the HUD inspector general’s office, told a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee that the inspector general is meeting congressional lawmakers’ request to investigate whether the Trump administration has slowed the flow of aid to the island.

“We are in the process of looking into whether there has been any interference and do plan to report back to Congress on what we find‚” Kirkland said in response to questions from Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the committee’s chairwoman, later adding that a team of agents and lawyers is looking into the matter. “I know our folks are out there right now doing that.”

His remarks come as a bipartisan group of lawmakers is looking into broader delays in the spending of federal aid for regions struck by natural disasters, including Texas and Florida. On Monday, the Government Accountability Office published a report finding that the federal government has been “slow” to get block grants to areas struck by disasters.

The Trump administration has also recently rejected requests for additional aid to Puerto Rico in particular, with President Trump privately signaling he will not approve help for Puerto Rico beyond $600 million in emergency funding for food stamps.

Trump again raised the topic of federal disaster aid during a lunch with senators Tuesday, saying Puerto Rico received too much money compared with allocations for Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and other states, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who described it on the condition of anonymity. Trump brought charts and said Puerto Rico could be bought several times over for $91 billion, the amount of aid he said the island had received.

“The Trump Administration is committed to the complete recovery of Puerto Rico. The island has received unprecedented support and is on pace to receive tens of billions of dollars from taxpayers,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson, in an email. “However, the Trump Administration will not put taxpayers on the hook to correct a decades old spending crisis that has left the island with deep-rooted economic problems.”

Trump has repeatedly told aides that he wants to limit how much money the island gets — particularly on disaster spending. Current and former aides said the president derided Puerto Rico, telling Mick Mulvaney — his director of the Office of Management and Budget and now his acting chief of staff — to limit spending there.

The Washington Post reported Monday that, at an Oval Office meeting on Feb. 22, Trump asked top advisers for ways to limit federal support to Puerto Rico, believing it is taking money that should be going to the mainland. During that meeting, Trump said that the island was misusing funds and that it should spend federal money only on fortifying the electrical grid.

“This is really serious and needs to be investigated to the fullest extent possible,” said Federico A. de Jesús, senior adviser of Power 4 Puerto Rico, an advocacy organization.

Waters on Tuesday asked Kirkland to specify how the inspector general’s investigation is framed — whether it is considering the possibility of White House interference or simply “looking at HUD and its inability to do its job.”

Kirkland responded that his agency may encounter some jurisdictional limitations “to look into the totality of that.”

“But where we can, we have asked those questions that Congress asked us to get to the bottom of,” he said.

On Jan. 17, Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent a letter to the HUD inspector general asking whether the Office of Management and Budget or any other White House office “directed HUD to unduly withhold or otherwise hinder” disaster relief block grants intended for Puerto Rico.

The Post first reported in January that the White House attempted to block disaster recovery money for Puerto Rico.

Darryl J. Madden, spokesman for the HUD inspector general, said the inspector general has the authority to investigate only HUD programs, people and policies — not the White House. It is looking into the actions HUD employees took, or failed to take, in administering disaster recovery grants for Puerto Rico, Madden said. If it discovers any White House interference, the matter would then be referred to another agency.

“Any matters deemed to be beyond our jurisdiction will be appropriately referred,” Madden said.

The GAO report found that as of January, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have not spent any of the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds approved by Congress. In comparison, Texas has drawn down about $18 million and Florida has used about $1 million of the HUD grants for administrative, planning and housing activities.

Congress has appropriated nearly $20 billion in HUD disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico, only $1.5 billion of which has been approved for spending. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has said that given the island’s “history of fiscal malfeasance, we are putting additional financial controls in place to ensure this disaster recovery money is spent properly.”

Fernando Gil, Puerto Rico’s secretary of housing, thanked HUD on Tuesday for working closely with island officials and “strengthening our previously approved internal controls so that we can get this much needed aid to Puerto Rico.”