Rep. Darren Soto under fire for taped comments about Puerto Ricans acquiring benefits

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — A Florida congressman is facing tough questions after some people say he told a room full of Puerto Ricans that they should say they’re staying in Central Florida—even if they aren’t planning to—in order to get medical benefits.

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., can be heard on a recording saying, “You’re going to be asked a question: Do you intend to stay? I urge you to say yes, for now, because otherwise you’re going to get rejected and then you’re going to find yourself without health care.”

If Puerto Rican evacuees do not check that box, they will be automatically denied for Medicare or Medicaid benefits.

The congressman is talking about one of a number of federal forms for obtaining Medicare or Medicaid, on which lying is likely criminal.

Soto declined an on-camera interview, instead opting to release a statement.

“I do not encourage anyone who is planning to leave our state to falsely claim otherwise. Many recently arrived Puerto Ricans have a high probability of staying in Florida,” said Soto in the statement. “The intent of my statement was to encourage them to err on the side of caution and declare their intent to stay if they are in doubt about their future plans.

When the video was posted online over the weekend, reaction was swift.

“He says what he says, and you know, it was kind of shocking,” said Jeremy Fetzer, of the Osceola Brass Tax Group.

Fetzer shot and posted the online version of the video. He said he also filed a complaint with the Congressional Ethics Committee.

Fetzer said he would have liked to hear Soto clarify that people planning to return to the island or go elsewhere should say no, rather than potentially overwhelming the benefits system.

“For a sitting U.S. congressman to advocate somebody lying to get benefits that they would not be eligible for and commit fraud is a huge issue in my book,” said Fetzer.