The Bush Pick: Political Colonialism Or Pragmatism?

by John Marino

May 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOOn the surface, the Bush administration decision to appoint a Mexican-American from east Texas to the U.S. Attorney post in San Juan appears to be a big blunder -- especially for a president already gearing up to woo the Hispanic vote in his reelection bid.

"Doesn't Bush know the difference between a Puerto Rican and a Mexican" was the reaction from one long-time observer of the local political scene.

"Can't they find one qualified attorney from the nearly 4 million Puerto Ricans on the island and the nearly 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living in the states?" was another.

Consider the growing number of Puerto Ricans living in central Florida and the importance of the Hispanic vote in the 2000 presidential race in that state to gauge the potential fall-out from the apparent gaff.

It's not just that Puerto Rico expects a Puerto Rican to be the top federal prosecutor on the island, either. U.S. Attorneys, with few exceptions, are from the states where they are picked to serve.

Looked at more closely, however, the Bush move looks purely Machlavellian - a brutally efficient way around the ugly infighting of local politics.

Initially, the move somehow managed to avoid the firestorm of criticism one would expect in San Juan. But this week, critical voices are being raised which could still build into a crescendo against the move.

The Puerto Rico post is one of the last 20 still vacant of the 93 posts across the nation, according to the New York Times. The U.S. Department of Justice recommended the appointment of Humberto "Bert" García, a U.S. Attorney from east Texas. Bush is supposed to formally nominate García this month, at which time the new prosecutor will begin his new assignment in San Juan.

The move comes after months of speculation over who would replace Acting U.S. Attorney Guillermo Gil, whose team of prosecutors have become akin to "The Untouchables" in Puerto Rico because of their prosecution of public corruption cases, many involving officials identified with the New Progressive Party administration of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló.

The big news over Gil's replacement is not who the new guy is, but the fact that Gil will remain in San Juan as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and the No. 2 man at the San Juan office - one reason for a lack of outrage over a non-Puerto Rican getting the post.

Gil's remaining in San Juan is very reassuring to those who want the investigations into public corruption to continue after a new prosecutor is picked to head up the San Juan office.

Gov. Calderón and her Popular Democratic Party have reportedly been lobbying behind the scenes to have Bush keep Gil in office, but administration officials have denied the reports. The governor has publicly praised Gil's efforts, however, and there's no doubt that his continual prosecution of public figures alligned to the NPP is good for her political future and that of the PDP.

So administration officials have not sounded off about the announcement, perhaps content that Gil is remaining.

Most NPP politicians have grudgingly paid tribute to Gil's string of successful prosecutions, but have also complained about some of his actions, such as his famous naming of the NPP as the recipient of illegally gotten funds through the Municipal Revenues Collection Center extortion scam.

But Republican NPP officials have until now taken the news in stride. "He's an American. We're all Americans. That's all I have to say," Republican National Committeeman Luis Fortuño told the San Juan STAR when asked for his reaction.

The main reason local Republicans are not whining is probably because the Bush decision has left them with egg on their faces. The local leadership of the national party in power are usually consulted to fill such federal posts.

Their pick for the post, Gary Montilla, withdrew his name for consideration earlier this year after long delays on his nomination. Bush was apparently ready to name Montilla late last year, but then former House Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo, indicted in an influence peddling scheme, was caught boasting on an FBI surveillance tape that Montilla would derail the investigation into his affairs.

Nobody believed Misla, but the comments, played during the former lawmaker's bail hearing, were enough to sink Montilla's nomination. And apparently, local Republicans could not come up with another name.

One Republican source in Washington, however, told local reporters that the Bush administration may have intentionally looked outside Puerto Rico for a federal prosecutor because of all the public corruption investigations still going on.

But the fact that neither than NPP nor the PDP have complained much in the immediate wake of the nomination appeared to be an indication that the Bush move was a smart way out of sticky problem.

But this week, voices of discontent are being raised. Juan Torruella, a judge for the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, said in an interview that "Speaking as a citizen, I'm outraged."

"This type of political colonialism would not have happened in any other place under U.S. jurisdiction," the Puerto Rican judge wrote in a newspaper column. "You can be sure that neither in Texas nor any other place in the United States would they dare to impose on the local population an attorney parachuting in from Puerto Rico or another place."

PDP Sen. Eudaldo Báez Galib, who heads the island Democratic Party, wrote Bush a letter calling for a Puerto Rican to be named to the post. He argued "there is no logical need to reach outside of Puerto Rico" for a chief federal prosecutor.

Whether these voices of protest gather enough strength to tank the expected nomination of García remains to be seen.

Bush, after all, has not even formally presented García's nomination for the post.

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