What Leader Will Take The NPP To Better Days?

by John Marino

February 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOIf there's any consolation for the New Progressive Party this week, it's that the thieves who stole in its name kept most of the money for themselves.

Federal prosecutors say that of the $4.3 million stolen from the Education Department in a corruption scheme implemented by former Secretary Victor Fajardo, about $1 million went to pay NPP debts or were given to the party in illegal cash contributions.

The Fajardo arrest was a difficult moment for NPP President Carlos Pesquera, and he did not handle it well. He wavered until late in the afternoon to address reporters, and then read from a prepared statement and did not take questions.

When he finally addressed the issue on Sunday, he declined to take action on the central question raised by the scandal: who from the party was involved with Fajardo in the scheme, and did the $1 million in fact get to it.

Instead, he left that question up to the pertinent authorities, and he announced that party financial procedures would be analyzed by an outside independent panel.

The panel is a good move, but he should have taken advantage of the moment, took a step forward and announced an internal investigation to try to determine if the party benefited from the $1 million and encouraged all other entities to investigate.

He also proposed that an independent committee analyze both the NPP and the Popular Democratic Party's finances over the last decade. It's not a bad idea, but again it misses the point.

Fajardo and his cohorts allegedly funneled money to the party by keeping it off the books. Ensuring accurate bookkeeping is useless if the bills and payments are never reported to the accountant. The guy who didn't report the bill is as guilty as Fajardo who got the contractors to pay it.

The NPP should face that fact. It's not only good politics, but it is essential to getting beyond this episode.

The Fajardo indictment angered people. Not only were millions taken, but they were sucked from the island school system, which has trouble keeping up with the most basic of student needs - like books for everyone and clean and functioning bathrooms. The whole point of an internal probe would be to pay restitution to the schools if any evidence was found that the party benefited from the scheme.

Pesquera left open the possibility that the party would pay if it is found to have benefited from the illegal cash. But a better politician would have picked up on the righteous anger of the public and turned it on the corrupt officials who are giving the party a bad name.

It did not help either that Pesquera had accused the local Justice Department of political persecution when it announced its own probe into the extortion scheme under Fajardo the week before the federal indictment was handed down.

There's another reason that Pesquera should have announced a probe to determine whether or not the party illegally benefited from the stolen money. If Fajardo's go-between is as loyal to the party as he was, only a trickle of cash would have gotten to the party over a five-year period.

A week after the Fajardo arrest, Pesquera announced a series of eight anti-corruption measures. Backed by the NPP House and Senate delegations, he used a Capitol hearing room to make the announcement.

He lashed into the Popular Democratic Party majority for failing to act on such measures before. PDP House and Senate leaders, meanwhile, lashed into Pesquera for using the Capitol, a public place, to make a political announcement (as if that does not happen every 10 minutes there).

Local television news reported only on the political fighting. None of the three commercial stations broadcast Pesquera's actual proposals. They include an extension of a prohibition against government officials participating in political events, barring advertising and public relations firms who have worked on campaigns to be awarded government contracts and to have the State Elections Commission to place financial records of candidates and parties on the Internet.

The package is an interesting one, but if Pesquera wanted it to capture the public imagination, he will have to do something more.

Even in this time of crisis for the NPP, Pesquera has missed some opportunities to score some political points against Calderón and the PDP. Of Fajardo's gang, the biggest briber of the bunch is Jesús Emilio Rivera Class, who federal authorities said paid more than $2 million in bribes to Fajardo and others. That's the local Justice Department's star witness who was granted immunity for his testimony. While the NPP has criticized the fact that he is a PDP member, it has been strangely silent on the fact that the administration made a deal with the alleged biggest crook.

Pesquera could make some more dramatic anti-corruption proposals as well. What about picking up on the Rosselló proposal to separate the party president from its gubernatorial candidate, who is often the governor?

That could prove to be a potent deterrent to schemes such as that undertaken by Fajardo and his cohorts, and it could put Calderón on the defensive, since she might not want to relinquish control of her party, with a Rafael Hernández Colón and son waiting in the wings.

Pesquera has done one smart thing in being almost critical of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló. He assured the public he knew of no illegal contributions during his tenure as party president and reminded all that Rosselló was party president for most of the time that the alleged illegal contributions took place, from 1996 through 2000.

The Fajardo scandal has hurt the NPP worse than any previous corruption scandal, and more bad news is expected to come. But the party will survive the wave of corruption cases. Anybody who doubts that need only look back to the PDP defeat in the 1996 elections, when it was demoralized and many political observers said doomed.

But the question remains what leader will take the NPP to better days.

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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