A New Turn In The Campaign Finance Reform Debate

by John Marino

July 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The campaign finance reform debate took an important turn this week, throwing the focus on toughening current electoral laws and away from the public financing of campaigns.

In the rough-and-tumble world of Puerto Rican politics, where defense of one’s party is often a virtue put above telling the truth, controlling the politician’s inherent lust for campaign contributions is no doubt a worthy goal.

But the commonwealth government’s current financial situation, coupled with freedom of speech guarantees on political contributions, cast doubt on whether the Calderón administration’s proposal to publicly finance political campaigns will work.

Add to that the costs of such a venture — estimates range from $40 million to $60 million for each four-year election cycle — coupled with the public’s disgust with the political class, and it’s easy to see that the political will to undertake campaign finance reform might be waning.

Ironically, perhaps, this priority issue for Gov. Calderón (she wants a law enacted by year’s end) all but disappeared from public discourse this summer, when the low-key hearings on the issue petered out during July, when most of Puerto Rico seems to be on vacation.

And ironically, too, it was a political fight that brought it back into the spotlight.

A preliminary State Elections Commission audit, leaked to the press last week, raised allegations of a host of election law violations by Popular Democratic Party and New Progressive Party candidates, mostly legislators.

The leak, widely believed to be undertaken by the NPP, was more damaging to the PDP, however, as it raised previous allegations that the Calderón campaign, running close to a $3 million spending cap, concocted a scheme to subsidize her campaign by having legislative candidates’ campaigns put out ads promoting her candidacy.

That is common practice in local politics. (The Pesquera campaign benefited substantially from ads taken out by NPP legislative candidates attacking Calderón’s integrity.) What would make it illegal is if the central party committee paid for the ads produced by an individual candidate’s campaign. So far, little public evidence of that has been presented against any of the parties.

NPP President Carlos Pesquera seized on the leak, which coincided with his big Fourth of July speech, to attack Calderón as the mastermind of the PDP "scheme," because she "was losing the election and knew it." Calderón dismissed the preliminary audit reports as mere differences in interpretations of election laws and attacked the NPP as the party that stole money from school children to pay for its political campaigns.

In the midst of the political spin, however, several lawmakers were left accused of a host of accounting violations, including unreported campaign contributions and expenses, incomplete information on donor lists, receiving donations in excess of legal caps, receiving donations disguised as loans and filing reports late.

What threw the campaign finance reform debate back into the spotlight, however, was the realization that regardless of the sins of the lawmakers, they would not be held accountable, as the statue of limitations on these violations had passed.

Even if they hadn’t, most of the violations of which they stood accused were misdemeanors, not felonies, presenting little incentive to make sure not to repeat them.

Tri-partisan calls immediately rang out to widen the campaign finance reform debate to address such deficiencies in electoral laws.

Then Rubén Berríos, whose reelection as Puerto Rican Independence Party president on Sunday ended nearly a year of public silence, said that the government should not give "one cent" to candidates seeking political office. He said the PIP would renounce public money, if other parties would follow suit.

He said the proposal was intended to "end the Victor Fajardo system," referring to the ex-Education secretary, who pleaded guilty to federal charges of stealing public school funds his own benefit and that of the New Progressive Party.

State Elections Commission President Aurelio Gracia Morales came out in favor Wednesday of extending the statute of limitations for Election Law violations. Currently, most violations have a statute of limitations of only a year, making prosecution of electoral law violators extremely difficult.

SEC audits are supposed to conducted every 90 days, but given the inherent bureaucracy in the sprawling agency in which all three political parties have a voice, surely makes sense.

He also supported tougher penalties for electoral law violations, turning more offensives into felonies.

There are other loopholes that could be closed that would do much to guard against the encouragement of corruption inherent in the current political system.

Banning telemarathons and anonymous donations completely would close the largest loophole in the current fairly stringent electoral laws. It is widely believed that both major parties commonly use such large public events to launder illegal donations (mostly donations by individuals and corporations made above legal limits).

With all the talk of campaign finance reform, one fact has managed to remain absent from much of the debate: by providing $3 million in public funding to gubernatorial candidates, Puerto Rico already has publicly financed campaigns.

This week’s turn in the debate appears to be both healthy and economically wise.JOHN MARINO

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

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