The administration of former President Donald Trump obstructed an investigation into why authorities withheld about $ 20 billion in hurricane relief in Puerto Rico following the devastating aftermath of the Hurricane Maria in 2017, one of the deadliest natural disasters in the United States in more than 100 years, according to a new report. .
A report from the Office of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development released on Thursday also found that tensions between the ministry and the Office of Management and Budget have resulted in unprecedented procedural obstacles that have resulted in delays in disbursement of funds approved by Congress.
It all started after 2018, when the OMB started asking HUD to send grant notices for disaster funds through an interagency review process for approval, which made it difficult for HUD to publish the grant notices. notices needed to release funds in a timely manner. Investigators found that the OMB had never previously required such a review process for a notice of allocation of collection funds.
Former HUD Assistant Secretary Brian Montgomery told investigators about a phone call he had with then-OMB director Russell Vought, in which Montgomery told Vought that his office’s actions amounted to holding disaster relief funds “hostage,” according to the report.
Investigators said they were unable to obtain testimony from officials who ordered the inter-agency review process. Former HUD secretary Ben Carson and another former HUD official also declined to be interviewed by investigators.
Access to HUD information was repeatedly delayed or denied during the investigation, the report says, and several former senior OMB administration officials refused to provide requested information on their decision-making process. regarding Puerto Rico’s relief funds.
However, investigators were able to interview 20 current and former HUD officials and two housing officials from Puerto Rico.
The Office of the Inspector General said its oversight authorities did not allow an official review or opinion of actions taken by Trump administration officials.
The Trump administration’s OMB also insisted on revising Puerto Rico’s property management records, suspending its minimum wage on federal contracts and other prerequisites for accessing relief funds, the report said. Some HUD officials were concerned that such requirements were potentially beyond HUD’s power to impose on beneficiaries.
The Office of the Inspector General began the review in March 2019 after Congress asked it to review hurricane aid delays as the island sought to recover from a storm that led to the 2,975 people died and triggered the second longest power outage in the world.
Seven months after the investigation was launched, two senior HUD officials admitted knowingly missing a congressional deadline for issuing an advisory that would have released billions in federal recovery funds to Puerto Rico. Carson then defended his agency’s actions by echoing Trump’s talking points – citing concerns about corruption, tax irregularities and “Puerto Rico’s ability to manage these funds.”
Throughout his tenure, Trump has repeatedly opposed disaster funding for Puerto Rico while challenging and failing to acknowledge Maria’s death toll. Trump also told senior White House officials “that he didn’t want a single dollar going to Puerto Rico,” the Washington Post reported in 2019. “Instead, he wanted more money. go to Texas and Florida “.
Under Trump, Congress approved a total of $ 20 billion in HUD funds for post-hurricane reconstruction in Puerto Rico, a historic amount. But the agency blocked the release of aid in 2019 and last year imposed additional restrictions and demands on how Puerto Rico could access funds, citing issues of corruption and financial mismanagement.
Office of Inspector General audits released last year found Puerto Rico needs a better system for applying for and monitoring federal grants to rebuild after Hurricane Maria – but Texas and Florida have had similar problems and their funds were not blocked after natural disasters.
The latest investigation comes two days after President Joe Biden’s administration removed Puerto Rico’s unique Trump-era restrictions, limiting its ability to access recovery funds through HUD. The agency also unlocked access to $ 8.2 billion in community development block grant mitigation funds to help the island build resilience in the face of future disasters. The aid was approved by Congress in 2018.
Biden has removed restrictions requiring additional grant obligations, a federal financial controller to oversee aid, and additional oversight from the island’s federally-imposed financial oversight board, according to the new HUD secretary, Marcia Fudge.
The federal government has allocated nearly $ 69 billion to help the island recover from Maria and other disasters that have plagued the island in recent years. But most of the money, especially funds for housing and infrastructure, has not been channeled to communities on the island. Puerto Rico received $ 19 billion, according to the Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience.
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Alec hernandez contributed.