|Lawmakers, and the ways in which they spend taxpayer money, are in the public eye again as a series of reports raises questions over the sobriety of how "pork barrel" funds are doled out.
Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora first raised eyebrows by granting a $7,000 check to a group known as the Mayaguez Jump-rope Federation, which struck some colleagues as a ridiculous use of the money.
Fas defended the group as a legitimate organization that works with impoverished youths and takes them on international competitions. And in retrospect, the donation does appear valid - when compared to doling out money to siblings, parents, cousins and in-laws.
That's exactly what Comptroller Manuel Díaz Saldaña has turned up in routine audits of lawmaker's offices, the two most recent targeting Senate Finance Committee Chairman Modesto Agosto Alicea, of the Popular Democratic Party, and former New Progressive Party Rep. Angel García de Jesús, who is now mayor of Yabucoa. The comptroller, who is calling for tighter restrictions on how such funds are disbursed, warns that pork barrel spending violations will be the subject of future audits as well.
"It wouldn't surprise me [finding more violations]. These reports are just a sampling of what we have found," Díaz Saldaña told lawmakers Wednesday.
Agosto Alicea, not to be mistaken for his brother Government Development Bank President Juan Agosto Alicea, was accused of dishing out $37,800 to relatives of his employees. The comptroller also cited him for illegally intervening in the distribution of funds once legislation had been passed on where they would be disbursed.
García de Jesús's expenditures raised even more eyebrows, with the comptroller finding that he doled out $11,900 to seven of his relatives and eight relatives of his wife. Another $17,500 went to 26 relatives of his office workers.
These funds were used by the recipients to do house repairs, pay for tuition and buy furniture and computers. It's not immediately clear how these expenditures fulfill the requirement stated by the comptroller that such funds need to serve a public purpose.
What is clear is that being a close friend or relative of a lawmaker increases your chances of receiving pork barrel money.
The comptroller also found that former NPP Rep. Luis Aramburu gave $50,000 to his relatives as well as to employees and their families. Former NPP Rep. Rafael Caro Tirado, meanwhile, gave $80,000 to a baseball team owned by his attorney.
Astonishingly, in the wake of the scandal, lawmakers are maintaining that family members should not necessarily be barred from receiving the funds.
PDP Rep. Bruno Ramos said that if a lawmaker has relatives in a community ravished by a hurricane, he should be able to give pork barrel funds to relatives. "The criteria should be need," he said.
Lawmakers here have an extraordinary amount of "pork barrel" funds at their disposal. Some $28.9 million are divided between district senators and representatives to distribute in their home regions. One top of that, the heads of the Senate and House have another $15 million at their disposal.
While much of the money is used for infrastructure projects, and lawmakers say they can distribute funds, earmarked for social purposes, quickly in an emergency, the system clearly is set up to allow lawmakers to award political allies and buy votes.
Indeed, with voting districts being remapped to conform with the results of the 2000 census, some complaints have been lodged that lawmakers are holding back on spending to avoid doling out dollars in communities that may be part of another district in the next election.
With all the discussion of campaign finance reform, eliminating pork barrel expenditures, a clear advantage for the incumbent, should be given serious consideration.
House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrando and Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora were requesting that their so-called "super barrels" be increased by $25 million so that they could dole out $40 million, rather than the $15 million available to them last year.
Legislation approving the increases, which had the support of the minority parties, was passed and waiting at La Fortaleza for the governor's signature.
But in the wake of the scandal, the legislative leaders asked that the legislation be returned so that stronger safeguards on the how the money was to be spent could be written into the legislation. They also said pared down the requested increase to $6 million from $25 million.
Whether Vizcarrando and Fas were shamed by public disgust over the matter or threatened with a veto by Gov. Calderón is still not clear. But it's good news that their appetite for pork seems to be on the decline.
The ability to dole out pork barrel funds is just another perk of the job of a Puerto Rico lawmaker, (the highest paid state or territorial legislator in the United States), who earn a $60,000 annual salary and up to $20,000 annually in tax-free per diem expenses -- not to mention free cars and drivers and cell phone usage.
If these perks alone don't contribute to an overblown sense of self-importance, then the ability of district representatives to spend $427,000 annually back home, and district senators to spend $625,000 annually back home, surely does.
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