When Ángel Figueroa Cruz, the executive director of the Senate Office of Government Affairs, was arrested last Thursday by the FBI in Puerto Rico, the President of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz, said he was saddened and described Figueroa Cruz as a decent and honorable man.
Figueroa Cruz was arrested alongside Isoel Sánchez Santiago and Crystal Robles Báez on charges of fraud. The group is accused of creating agencies and holding contracts with the Senate and charging for services performed by ghost employees.
Dubbed #crepagate by Puerto Rican social media —because the headquarters of these agencies were found to be at a crepe store owned by Sánchez Santiago— the arrests come after journalist Valeria Collazo Cañizares began investigating excessive spending back in 2017 from the Senate and found empty offices scattered throughout the island, even though official paperwork stated that they had over 90 employees.
Last week, during a press conference to react towards the arrests, Rivera Schatz appeared defensive and aggressive towards journalists, especially those digging into the investigation and how it might implicate him. A journalist asking about Figueroa Cruz’s salary was met with a hostile comeback about how all the information was on the website, but was later fact-checked to be false.
Later, Collazo Cañizares, who jump-started the investigation, asked the Senate President if instead of ghost employees, there were ghost contractors. Rivera Schatz, visibly annoyed, said he would not dignify to answer that question and accused her of being disrespectful and unprofessional.
Parte de lo que pasó hoy. pic.twitter.com/f5GvYLlcUf
— Valeria Collazo (@ValeriaCollazoC) May 30, 2019
Collazo Cañizares did not back down and continued to ask questions, so he chose to speak over her, and then ignore her altogether, opting to take questions from other journalists.
“What Rivera Schatz did to Valeria Collazo will not be the first or the last time, but it should not be normalized nor minimized by saying ‘oh, that’s just how he is’. His attitude was ‘disrespectful’, and his refusal to answer questions that concern all constituents,” NotiCel journalist Adriana De Jesús Salamán tweeted in Spanish last Thursday.
Lo que le hizo Rivera Schatz hoy Valeria Collazo no será la primera ni la última, pero no por eso debe normalizarse ni minimizarse diciendo ‘ay, es que él es así’. “Falta de respeto” fue su actitud y el negarse a responder preguntas que le conciernen a todos los constituyentes.
— Adriana De Jesús Salamán (@adrianadesala) May 31, 2019
Colleagues and strangers on social media came to Collazo Cañizares’ defense, reprimanding the Senate President for his behavior. Some were quick to point out that Thursday’s press conference was not the first time Rivera Schatz appeared aggravated by Valeria’s reporting.
In 2017, shortly after the start of this investigation, Collazo Cañizares wrote a detailed Facebook post that she received a call on her personal phone from Rivera Schatz where he undermined her credentials and insulted her work.
This 2017 threat to Collazo Cañizares may suggest pattern from Rivera Schatz, who in 2005 allegedly called and threatened Latino Rebels collaborator and then director of a Puerto Rican news outlet, Susanne Ramírez de Arellano.
In a conversation with Latino Rebels, Ramírez de Arellano detailed how she received a late-night phone call from Rivera Schatz, who disagreed with a story the outlet ran. According Ramírez de Arellano, Rivera Schatz wanted her to not only take the story down, but also publicly reprimand the reporter who worked on the story.
The award-winning journalist, who also spent time at the Associated Press and ABC News, thinks it’s unacceptable that the President of the Senate supports undemocratic measures to silence the press and draw the pressure away from the reality of his power.
“It’s his modus operandi. He’s taken a page out of Donald Trump’s book. He’s using this as a smokescreen, throwing this at the masses because he’s embarrao (compromised),” Ramírez de Arellano told Latino Rebels.
She also noted that there is a serious problem in Puerto Rican media, where leaders of news agencies are entangled with politicians, and creating a terrible and hostile work environment for the good reporters who are trying to do their jobs.
On Monday, the Overseas Press Club and Association of Puerto Rican Journalists (ASPPRO) released a statement condemning the Senate President’s remarks and attitude towards journalists, and backing up Collazo Cañizares and her colleagues, demanding Rivera Schatz answer the questions he refused during the press conference.
El Overseas Press Club respalda a la periodista Valeria Collazo y otros. pic.twitter.com/iFuQcdePlS
— Overseas Press Club (@opcpr) May 31, 2019
This prompted a lengthy Facebook post by Rivera Schatz where he said the ASPPRO and the Overseas Press Club have no moral authority to criticize anyone and act as victims, stating that no one takes them seriously, and continued attacking Collazo Cañizares and Jay Fonseca, her boss, through Twitter.
Buenos días a la prensa:
Sobre estas dos expresiones sobre ustedes, ¿algo que decir? ¿Algo que censurar? ¿Alguna invitación o exhortación que hacer? pic.twitter.com/6d3UcNVMi8
— Thomas Rivera Schatz (@trschatz51) June 3, 2019
The FBI’s investigation is nowhere near concluded, and more developments are expected in the coming months.
Natalia Rodríguez Medina is the 2019 summer correspondent for Latino Rebels. She is a member the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY’s Class of 2019. Natalia tweets from @nataliarodmed.