by John Marino

March 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOGov. Calderón and her Popular Democratic Party have been hit by blowback -- that law of unintended consequences -- from the frontal attack they launched against public corruption.

A series of press reports over the last two weeks has implicated the party with scheming to circumvent advertising spending caps imposed by the State Elections Commission during Calderón's successful run for governor.

Another series of reports questions Calderón's handling of advertising contracts during her four-year term as San Juan mayor, pointing out that $3 million worth of contracts during fiscal years 2000 and 2001 ballooned to more than $7 million with amendments.

Reports have also raised questions as to whether federal funds may have been improperly spent on advertising, while yet another report, based on one unnamed source, charges that several million dollars may have been illegally diverted from San Juan City Hall to Calderón campaign coffers.

One question -- does the story have legs? -- will be answered in due time by the various agencies asked to investigate the charges, some by Calderón, others by her political opponents. These agencies include the Commonwealth Comptroller's Office, the Government Ethics Office, the State Elections Commission, the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

But a bigger question may be why the press frenzy over the reports in the first place -- given the paltry proof being offered up to back some of the allegations.

Much of the explanation for this has to do with the "witch-hunting" atmosphere that has taken over Puerto Rico's political circles in the midst of a series of corruption cases against current and former government officials.

Calderón has picked up on public disgust with corruption and made clean government the main aim of her administration.

Nothing wrong with that, but the extremes to which that fight has been taken has engendered criticism over an apparent "self-righteous" attitude by the Calderón team.

The public tarnishing of Rep. Angel Cintrón, also the New Progressive Party Secretary General, for studying law while working at the House is one instance where the fight against corruption has taken on political overturns.

Calderón's Blue Ribbon Commission, which a federal judge ruled trampled on the due process rights of some of its targets, is seen by many as a modern-day Spanish Inquisition or "Star Chamber," in the words of federal Judge José Fusté.

In the wake of the reports alleging wrongdoing by PDP officials, PDP Secretary General Jorge Colberg Toro filed a complaint against the Puerto Rican Independence Party for allegedly violating election laws by transferring funds from the central party to municipal committees. The PIP openly admits to paying the rent and expenses on these local committees, a practice officials said has been going on without a complaint for a decade.

Ironically, the reports on the PDP first surfaced during Senate Ethics Committee hearings designed to boot from office freshman PDP Sen. Maribel Rodríguez, accused of attempting to misuse about $1,900 paid to her for an official trip to the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York. She returned the money when questions arose over which hotel she stayed in during the trip.

Testimony by Rodríguez's son alleged that the PDP sought to evade the $3 million spending cap on Calderón's gubernatorial run by having legislative candidates produce ads favoring her candidacy. That would be illegal if the PDP central committee transferred funds to the individual candidates' campaign committees to pay for the ads, as Rodríguez's son indicated had been done.

Of all the charges in the recent reports, this one has the most credibility, not only because of the contradictory statements being offered by the lawmakers involved, but also because the use of individual political action committees to support a party's main candidate is a long-standing practice in island political campaigns.

Interestingly, the New Progressive Party has not filed a complaint with the State Elections Commission concerning the alleged scheme. Maybe it's because one newspaper published a report accusing the campaign team of gubernatorial candidate Carlos Pesquera of undertaking a similar strategy.

Calderón's reaction to the reports has not been too savvy either, perhaps because the governor is really bothered by the attempt to muddy her image.

On Monday, the governor called PDP leaders to a meeting at La Fortaleza and then spoke to the press about the charges. Not only did political opponents denounce the event as a political meeting at a government building, but PDP Alida Arizmendi embarrassed the Calderón team by saying she had recently been billed for the campaign ads in question.

Then on Tuesday, Calderón saw fit to make a televised address to the Puerto Rican people to answer the charges at a cost of $42,000 in public funds. Political opponents rightly objected, and called on the Comptroller's Office and the Government Ethics Office to investigate.

The governor could have called a press conference. It would have gotten the same play in the press at no cost to the public. But, then again, she would be forced to answer reporters' questions.

Because of the bungled aftermath, the press reports have created a political firestorm that has singed the administration regardless of whether or not the allegations stand the test of time.

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

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback