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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Political Cronies Crowd House Payroll
by Robert Becker
July 20, 2001
The body politick was starving, declared the new Popular Democratic Party administration on taking office in January of this year.
Somebody forgot to tell the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. A new study has shown the legislators are dishing out $570,000 per month in cushy contracts to their friends, cronies and defeated political candidates from their own parties.
Budget experts for the incoming Calderón administration, not to mention the House Finance Committee, had earlier this year raised the alarm that the commonwealth budget was in terrible shape. They cried that the outgoing Rosselló administration had stuck them with a $500 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2001. They moaned that the slowing economy was hurting tax revenue projections s for fiscal 2002. Drastic measures had to be taken . The worried chairman of the House Finance Committee declared the government of Puerto Rico to be "almost bankrupt."
So grim the picture appeared to be that when it came time to balance the budget for the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, most every agency in government had to take an unheard-of 5 percent cut -- except for the Legislature, and a few other favored agencies.
Rather than tightening its belt, the tax-writing House is letting it out a few notches. At the request of the Associated Press, the the House Finance Office prepared a list of contracts paid out from January to June of this year. The list was larded with the names of former legislators, ex-mayors and defeated candidates for public office.
Most of the " consulting" contracts fell in the range of $2,000 per month to $5,000 per month. The House was caught with its pants down around its ankles. It was exposed engaging in a time-honored tradition in Puerto Rican politics -- find a way to put ones jobless political cronies on the public payroll.
One of the richest contracts was a $5,000 per month plum awarded to the former president of the Carolina Municipal Assembly, Reynaldo Castellanos. The contract was awarded by House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrondo, of the PDP.
Other needy PDP politicos who scored contracts were former Rep. Presby Santiago, with a $4,500-per-month contract with PDP Rep. Rafael García Colón; former PDP Rep. Alfredo López Malavé, who had had a $5,000 per month House contract in May and June; and José Ramón Castro Acevedo, a former PDP mayoral candidate in Juncos, who had separate $2,640 and $2,600 monthly contracts with PDP Rep. Severo Colberg.
Another PDP fixture coming up rosy was Rafael Jaume, who had toiled as a press officer for former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón and former San Juan mayor Héctor Luis Acevedo. Jaume landed separate monthly contracts of $1,975 and $2,000 with the ubiquitous Colberg, as well as a $3,000 monthly contract with PDP rep. José Varela.
New Progressive Party officials were just as solicitous of their out-of-work brethren. Defeated Rep. Augusto Sánchez was awarded a $1,500 monthly contract by NPP Rep. Aníbal Vega Borges; former Rep. Elisa Juarabe scooped up a $2,500 monthly contract with NPP Rep. Iris Miriam Ruiz; and former La Fortaleza aide Rafael Rodríguez Aguayo surfaced with a $2,500 monthly contract with the House.
The division of spoils is that the PDP, as majority party, gets the lions share, while the defeated NPP must console itself with leftovers. And, in almost comic-opera fashion, the lone Puerto Rican Independence Party legislator in the House, Víctor García San Inocencio, gets a $35,000 monthly budget to spread around. The majority PDP legislators rate just $25,000 per month, but García gets a plusher allowance because he is a "minority leader," albeit of a one-member delegation.
Legislators defended their contracting practices with logic as Byzantine as their office hiring practices.
Colberg, one of the most generous dispensers of political plums, sought to divert attention from himself by pointing at others. He suggested some legislators were simply repaying political favors, and that they all needed to be more selective and rigorous in hiring contractors.
"I think (the $570,165 monthly figure) is excessive," he intoned.
The most creative -- and also honest -- explanation issued from PDP Rep. Félix Marrero, who has two political " advisers" on his payroll.
.Marerro said he steers clear of the Office of Legislative Services, which normally provides the same services rendered by the various consultants.
"I have heard that if you send a bill to the Office of Legislative Services, you run the risk of having someone steal an idea from you. I have also heard that their work is not very good."
Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org