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Orlando Sentinel

Putting Outsider In Corruption-Fighter Post Fuels Bipartisan Anger

By Iván Román

MAY 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Nobody likes the stain that frequent corruption scandals leave on Puerto Rico's reputation. As authorities pull the dirty laundry into the sun, many hope the stain will fade away.

But now Puerto Ricans have learned that the person who will be going after these thieves and corrupt public servants isn't even a Puerto Rican.

There have been 16 months of speculation about whom the new Republican administration would tap to replace acting U.S. Attorney Guillermo Gil.

Now the Justice Department announced it is recommending that the White House appoint Humberto "Bert" Garcia, a Mexican-American U.S. prosecutor based in Texas.

Attorney General John Ashcroft gave Garcia the position temporarily, starting June 3, and asked President Bush for a permanent appointment, which requires Senate confirmation.

It would be the first time in at least 25 years that a Puerto Rican is not in charge of the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Juan.

Judge Juan Torruella, a judge in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston and a Puerto Rican, called Garcia's appointment a case of "political colonialism."

"You can be sure that in Texas or in any other part of the U.S. they would not dare impose on the local population a U.S. attorney that just parachutes in from Puerto Rico or somewhere else," Torruella wrote in a column in El Vocero newspaper.

The chorus against Garcia's appointment keeps growing.

Even Democrats are offering to help stop it. In a letter to Bush, Puerto Rico Sen. Eudaldo Baez Galib, local Democratic Party president, asks him to reconsider and pledges to lobby the Democrat-controlled Senate in favor of a Puerto Rican candidate, even if he is a Republican.

The U.S. attorney should know the idiosyncrasies of local juries, victims and lawyers, the senator said, and not choosing someone from Puerto Rico could show a lack of trust in the local Bar and, particularly, in local Republicans.

Most Republicans belong to the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which Gil accused of being corrupt, indicting dozens of its leaders and activists in cases of bribery, money laundering and other transgressions. The NPP rejected that horrible stain on its institution, and some even lobbied for Gil's removal.

"At this moment in time, when there is an active investigation and prosecution of former commonwealth government executives of the highest levels which served under a particular local political party affiliated to the Republican Party, your choice, as well as the substitution itself, causes grave doubts," Baez Galib wrote.

A White House spokeswoman said no recommendation had been made on an appointment and that there were still "various candidates."

Garcia, who spoke earlier in the week as if it were a done deal, was more cautious during a quick visit to San Juan on Thursday, saying he didn't know whether other names were in the hat.

He also confessed to knowing almost nothing about Puerto Rico. Given the close and sometimes incestuous relationships among the island's government, political and business classes, some would say that appointing someone with no professional or personal ties to that web is a good thing.

But it also raises the question: Where is the local Republican Party? Last year, it recommended former Tampa U.S. Attorney Gary Montilla, a Puerto Rican, whose aspirations were possibly derailed when his name came up in a bribery and influence-peddling case against former House Speaker and Republican National Committee member Edison Misla Aldarondo.

Montilla said he didn't know Misla or other Republicans implicated in the scandal. And there is no evidence Montilla was involved at all. Misla just mentioned him in an incidental way in a surveillance tape. Tired of waiting, Montilla withdrew his name from the running two months ago.

Garcia's appointment now raises doubts about whether local Republican infighting hampered the effort or whether the lack of influence to secure a Puerto Rican to fill the spot points to a crippled local party.

Republican leaders will meet this week in San Juan to figure out what position, if any, to take on the matter.

Carlos Chardon, the local party's directing secretary, rejected notions of a lack of action or influence, as touted in the local media.

"Paper holds whatever you put on it, and the wind holds even more," Chardon said.

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