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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Reform Finances Of Campaigns
January 29, 2002
A major government corruption scandal in Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, points to the need for campaign finance reform in U.S. territories as well as in the continental United States.
At issue is the recent federal indictment of 17 people in Puerto Rico, including former Education Secretary Víctor Fajardo, who is accused of taking kickbacks from government contractors and funneling some of the money to his political party.
Federal prosecutors are looking into whether the New Progressive Party, which favors statehood for Puerto Rico, knew about the kickback scheme. Party officials claim they did not. But whether this is true or not doesn't get to the heart of the problem.
A big problem in Puerto Rico is that ruling parties use government bureaucrats to do political fund-raising. Guillermo Gil, the island's U.S. attorney, has rightly called for an end to this bad habit that assigns local government agency heads with fund-raising quotas to help pay for campaign debts and other political expenses.
As Gil told The New York Times, "There's no way they're going to collect those sums of money through raffle tickets."
The New Progressive Party is no longer in power, but that doesn't mean that improper fund-raising has stopped. The ruling Popular Democratic Party, which favors the island's current commonwealth status, has had its own campaign financing scandals in the past. Gov. Sila Calderón, who ran on a platform to crack down on government corruption, needs to guarantee that her party isn't involved in any fund-raising hanky-panky. Calderón has, rightly, proposed to seek changes in the law to restrict the way parties do fund-raising. Puerto Rico's Legislature should debate these proposals as soon as possible.
What makes this latest corruption scandal especially egregious is that it hurts the education of Puerto Rican children. Some of the $1.5 million diverted to party coffers came from federal money that would have provided classroom computers and computer training for teachers. That's like stealing money from babies. The scandal should serve as a wakeup call to island residents that they cannot tolerate corruption in their government.
The government of Puerto Rico once had a reputation for honesty, in the days when the U.S. Commonwealth status was created in 1952. It needs to get that reputation back.