Blowback: Allegations Of Electoral Law Violations Reach La Fortaleza

by John Marino

August 2, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOWhen State Elections Commission President Aurelio Gracia was nominated to his post by Gov. Calderón last March, the former judge said his judicial instincts told him he "had to forget about the powers that appointed me."

This week, he listened to those instincts, calling on the Justice Department to investigate audits conducted on the 2000 election campaigns of 16 former and current lawmakers as well as on allegations that the Popular Democratic Party central committee illegally transferred funds to the campaigns of individual lawmakers.

The audits targeted seven current and two former PDP lawmakers and one former and six current New Progressive Party lawmakers.

His call for an investigation of PDP central committee fund transfers gives fire to critics who charge that there was a PDP scheme to circumvent the $3 million spending cap on gubernatorial candidates by Calderón’s campaign.

As a result, few people had much good to say about Gracia this week.

Both PDP and NPP lawmakers said their "due process" rights were violated since they were not asked to comment on the findings before they were sent to Justice for investigation.

And Gov. Calderón downplayed the significance of the findings.

"This is not corruption. Corruption is stealing money from the people," the governor said. "We are talking about interpretations of electoral laws. The SEC president made his interpretation, and now the Justice secretary is required to make an additional evaluation."

The one exception was former SEC President Juan Melecio, Gracia’s predecessor, whose decade at the helm of the agency won him accolades from across party lines.

Melecio said Gracia’s decision showed his "fortitude, uprightness and integrity."

"His decision shows he occupies the president’s post. The post does not occupy him," Melecio said.

The lawmakers named in the audits referred to Justice include Sens. Lucy Arce, Juan Cancel, Jose Dalmau, Kenneth McClintock, Orlando Parga, Roberto Vigoreaux, Roberto Prats and Cirilio Tirado.

The representatives named in the audits are: Alida Arizmendi, Jorge De Castro Font, Aníbal Vega Borges, Melinda Romero, Ferdinand Pérez and Iris Miriam Ruiz.

The audits also named former lawmakers Angel Cintrón and Maríbel Rodríguez.

Among the violations uncovered by the audits were: filing false reports, accepting contributions above existing limits, reporting illegal campaign expenditures and accepting contributions from businesses, which is against local election laws.

Although most of the alleged violations are misdemeanors with a one-year statute of limitations, filing of false reports is a felony which can be prosecuted for up to five years later, and accepting illegal campaign donations has no statute of limitations.

Because of the weak teeth in local election laws, for most of these lawmakers, the situation is embarrassing but hardly fatal.

The most damaging aspect of Gracia’s actions is his call for Justice to investigate whether the PDP violated local laws by transferring funds from its central committee to the campaign committees of individual lawmakers who took out ads promoting Calderón’s candidacy.

While it’s common practice for individual candidates to engage in such coordinated ad campaigns, it is illegal if their campaigns don’t pay for the ads. The PDP could be forced to pay fines if found guilty of the practice.

"There are several candidates who said they made the ads and paid for them," Gracia said. "But there are others [Rep. Alida Arizmendi and Sen. Roberto Vigoreaux] who said they made the ads but did not commit to pay for them."

Citing this "conflicting evidence," Gracia called for the Justice review.

The PDP lambasted Gracia for not making the determination himself as to whether or not there were illegal transfers from the central PDP campaign to the campaigns of individual lawmakers who took out the ads.

But Gracia did the right thing in making the referral.

Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez, who contributed to Calderón’s campaign and was appointed to her post by the governor, did the wrong thing when a day after the referrals she declined to recuse herself from the investigation.

There appears to be real anger in the PDP camp over the allegations. The governor’s comment that corruption is "stealing money from the people" harks back to the indictment of former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo and 16 others in a $4.3 million corruption scheme at his agency under the NPP administration of ex-Gov. Pedro Rosselló. Federal prosecutors say that about $1 million of the pilfered funds made it into the NPP’s campaign warchest.

Why didn’t the SEC audit turn up anything on that, PDP stalwarts must be asking.

Despite that valid question, the Justice secretary needs to appoint a Special Independent Prosecutor to investigate the SEC audits. The SIP office was created to investigate such politically sensitive cases.

It’s a wonder that Rodríguez, who has shown herself to be a bright and energetic Justice secretary, does not see that. She must know that if she exonerates the PDP, political opponents will call it a cover-up. And if she does find some violations were made, political opponents will still call it a cover-up.

One thing is clear this week, however, the little-known Gracia is showing himself to be a capable SEC president at a time when concerns over political corruption in Puerto Rico are rampant.

When Gracia was first nominated to his position, he said, "when I think about filling Judge Juan Melecio’s shoes, I believe they are too big for me."But four months into his tenure, Gracia appears to be filling them quite well.

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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