If It Ain’t Broke…

by John Marino

January 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOAt a press conference last week to announce the arrest of a gang of corrupt cops in Ponce, Interim U.S. Attorney Guillermo Gil was asked about a letter sent to the Bush White House by Sen. Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer asking for an investigation into a burglary allegedly committed by Gil as a teenager.

It was an old story, one that Gil had answered before, and the Republican senator’s letter was a clear attempt to pressure the White House to name a replacement for Gil.

"Nobody intimidates me," Gil said, while declining comment on the specifics of the letter. "Nobody."

This week, Gil showed that again when his office rounded up on Wednesday 17 people -- including local Chamber of Commerce President Richard D‚Costa and former Education Secretary Víctor Fajardo -- for allegedly participating in a $4.3 million corruption scheme at the commonwealth Education Department.

Gil may be the longest serving Interim U.S. Attorney in the nation. Reportedly, his desire to return to his career post after he is relieved of duty is one reason he never formally became U.S. attorney when named by the Clinton White House back in 1993.

Bush was apparently ready to name his successor late last year, but then former House Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo was caught boasting on an FBI surveillance tape that Gil’s replacement would derail the investigation into his affairs.

The tape was played during Misla’s bail hearing following his arrest for his alleged participation in a kickback scheme surrounding the sale of a government health center.

Bush should keep Gil on the job.

It‚‘s not like he hasn’t kept Clinton appointees on the job if he believes they are performing well. CIA Director George Tenet and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta are two cases in point. And those two guys are still on the job after Sept. 11.

Gil, by contrast, has been on a roll since 1999, successfully prosecuting island mayors, police officers, government bureaucrats, corrupt businessmen, politicians and political party operatives on a whole slew of corruption charges.

By taking the lead in fighting corruption in Puerto Rico, Gil has polished the image of the U.S. Attorney’s Office here and won widespread praise from all political camps.

His first incursions into uncovering local corruption were done to ensure that federal funds were being used properly.

His first big case was against Toa Alta Mayor Angel Rodriguez, a key organizer in the NPP, who was convicted of demanding kickbacks for granting clean-up contracts in the wake of Hurricane Georges, which hit Puerto Rico in September 1998.

Then the U.S. Attorney's Office won the convictions of three former directors of the defunct San Juan AIDS Institute, for stealing federal funds meant for AIDS patients for personal use and political contributions. Two other Institute officials were subsequently convicted in a separate trial. A total of $2.2 million in federal funds were illegally diverted by those convicted.

A less heralded but bigger case was that of Puerto Rico Social Action, Inc., a non-profit aimed at helping underprivileged children, the homeless and the elderly, whose directors were found guilty of embezzling $5.4 million in federal funds funneled to the agency through the commonwealth government.

But by using interstate commerce laws, Gil’s office has also taken jurisdiction where no federal funds are involved. That was the case with the Municipal Revenues Collection Center, in which a slew of government officials and private contractors were charged in an extortion scheme surrounding the awarding of a $56 million computer contract.

The Education Department scheme uncovered this week might not involve the most money misused by those charged by Gil’s office, but the fact that a prominent business leader and a former Cabinet secretary were indicted makes it one of his biggest cases yet.

While Fajardo and his cohorts benefited personally from the pay-offs, about $1 million in the extorted money allegedly went to pay debts incurred by the NPP.

Gil, who called for the commonwealth to reform the way it finances campaigns, took pains to say the problem was one of both political parties.

"What we are talking about is not political. It's corruption. It’s an evil of both parties," Gil said of the way campaigns are financed. "You can't ask agency chiefs to deliver exorbitant quotas [of campaign donations]. The only way they can do this is to ask the money from contractors, and once you do that, you are participating in corruption."

Wednesday was a bad day for Puerto Rico in general -- especially because the allegedly squandered money came from the financially strapped Education Department which struggles to provide books and other materials for island schoolchildren.

But Puerto Ricans could take some comfort in the fact that corruption is being brought to light and eradicated.

Federal authorities also said that the investigation into corruption at the Education Department continues, and that more indictments are likely. Which is all the more reason to keep Gil on the job -- even if he continues to fill his post on an interim basis.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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