|The federal corruption indictments of Rep. Edison Misla Aldarondo has shaken the already tarnished image of the New Progressive Party and the Republican Party in Puerto Rico. Misla is a major figure in both organizations, and the continuing publicity over his legal troubles will be a millstone around the neck of both bodies in the months to come.
Misla and four others were arrested on Oct. 26 on federal charges related to the sale of a public hospital in the north coast town of Manatí. Misla, who was released on $600,000 bail, was charged with extortion, conspiracy, money laundering and witness tampering. Indicted with him in the scam, which allegedly took place during the administration of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, were the former legal adviser to the commonwealth Health Department and three individuals who bought the Manatí facility.
The indictment outlines an alleged scheme in which Misla and the health department legal adviser were paid $258,548 for facilitating the purchase of the hospital. Mislas legal troubles may get worse, as a separate federal grand jury is probing his alleged involvement in a similar kickback scheme in the purchase of the Arecibo Regional Hospital.
The Puerto Rican press, known for its bias against pro-statehood figures, is expected to have a field day with Mislas trial. Adding to the sensationalism surrounding the case is that the FBI secretly recorded Misla boasting that his Republican political connections would get him off the hook with federal investigators. In one recording, Misla boasts that he would enlist the help of "el Viejo" -- Luis A. Ferré, the revered patriarch of Puerto Ricos Republican Party -- to intercede with the Bush administration. Mislas hope, which never materialized, was that Ferré would pull the strings to replace the aggressive U.S. Attorney, Guillermo Gil, with a more compliant prosecutor.
With his characteristic aplomb, Misla denied all the charges and told the press that the federal charges were simply edited versions of "chapters of a long novel."
For years, Misla has been a key player in Puerto Ricos small Republican Party. He is one of three national committeemen on the island, the others being Zori Fonalledas, the wife of wealthy businessman Jaime Fonalledas, and Ferré, also the party chairman.
Misla reached the pinnacle of his political career with his elevation to Speaker of the House
in 1997, at the start of Rossellós second term. Misla caught the political bug as a pro-statehood activist at the University of Puerto Rico in the 1960s, where political discourse occasionally took the form of Molotov cocktails and gunfire. The rough-and-tumble Misla succeeded Zaida "Cucusa" Hernández Torres, who resigned the speakership to run, unsuccessfully, against Sila M. Calderón for mayor of San Juan.
Mislas indictment will not, in the short run, help the NPP in its struggle to clean up its badly soiled image in the eyes of the public. An unbroken string of corruption scandals led to apathy among NPP supporters and probably cost Carlos Pesquera the 2000 election against Calderón. Mislas indictment is one more pointed reminder of the partys corruption problem.
For Pesquera, though, Mislas indictment also provides an opportunity for him to look good. After his election loss to Calderón, Pesquera had worked to remove Misla from his post as House minority leader, but was blocked from doing so by the partys Old Guard.
Now Pesquera, who has surfaced to retake the reins of the NPP, can say "I told you so" to the recalcitrant statehooders who blocked him on Misla. Pesquera has already replaced Misla as minority leader with Rep. Aníbal Vega Borges, and is pressuring Misla to resign his House seat from San Juan. Its his chance to look like a crusading reformer within the NPP.
The island Republican Party will also suffer a stain from the Misla affair. The party has taken its share of lumps. Former Sen. Freddie Valentín, a one-time Misla crony and Republican activist, was indicted by a federal grand jury in June of 2000 for influence peddling when he was a member of the Puerto Rico Senate. Valentín is now believed to be cooperating with federal prosecutors in the case against Misla, his former NPP and republican colleague..
The former mayor of Ponce, José Dapena Thompson, was a rising star in the island GOP whose career was cut short after being named an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal prosecution of misuse of HUD funds.
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