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Dozens of Dems demand explanations after Trump administration again refuses to release Puerto Rico aid

New York Daily News — Chris Sommerfeldt New York Daily News

Jan. 14-- Jan. 14--More than three dozen Democratic lawmakers -- including nine from New York -- are demanding that Housing Secretary Ben Carson explain to them in person why his agency is refusing to release billions of dollars in congressionally approved disaster aid to Puerto Rico.

In a Monday letter spearheaded by Brooklyn-Queens Rep. Nydia Velazquez, 41 Democrats said Carson's Housing and Urban Development Department is breaking the law by withholding $8.3 billion in hurricane readiness assistance for the U.S. commonwealth without providing any "real" justification.

In light of the back-to-back earthquakes that rocked Puerto Rico last week, the Dems said Carson owes them -- and the island's residents -- immediate answers.

"Due to the new emergency at hand and the urgency of the situation, we are officially requesting an in-person meeting," they wrote. "It is your responsibility as secretary of HUD to provide members of Congress an explanation as to why your department has chosen to violate the law by withholding these critical resources. Puerto Ricans have waited too long."

Spokespeople for Carson did not return requests for comment.

While the Trump administration kept stonewalling on the aid, Gov. Cuomo said Monday he was leading a delegation to Puerto Rico this week to determine whether to send additional New York State disaster recovery dollars.

"Can we help with engineering, can we help with the power plant, can we help with supplies? What do they need that we can best provide?" Cuomo said of his two-day trip, speaking at an unrelated event in Rockland County.

Velazquez sent a separate letter to Carson last week demanding the "immediate" release of the aid.

But the Trump official never responded, according to Velazquez, who grew up in Puerto Rico.

"We have repeatedly implored Secretary Carson to follow the law, do right by Puerto Rico and release the assistance our fellow citizens are legally due," Velazquez told the Daily News.

The other New York Democrats who signed the Monday letter are Sens. Schumer and Gillibrand, Reps. Adriano Espaillat, Yvette Clarke, Jose Serrano, Grace Meng, Jerry Nadler and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The outstanding $8.3 billion is part of a larger package of aid approved by Congress in September to bankroll housing redevelopment, infrastructure repairs and economic revitalization projects in Puerto Rico following the devastation caused by Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017.

Of that larger package, only $1.5 billion has been released.

A HUD official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The News last week that the Trump administration hasn't released the aid out of unspecified concerns of "corruption."

President Trump has long without evidence suggested Puerto Rico shouldn't be given more aid over such concerns, prompting outrage from Democrats, who say it's racism, not concern for financial wrongdoing, that influences his thinking.

Democrats have also countered that Puerto Rico's own inspector general found there's no legitimate reason in holding back the aid. Moreover, they say it's not Carson's prerogative to hold up the aid for any reason, as Congress approved it in a bipartisan fashion.

Meanwhile, thousands of Puerto Rican families remain in makeshift shelters following last week's quakes.

"They are too afraid to sleep inside their houses or unsecured refuges due to last week's 6.4 magnitude earthquake and the aftershocks that followed," Velazquez and her colleagues wrote in the letter.

With Denis Slattery

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