Fajardo Lies

by John Marino

October 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOFormer Education Secretary Victor Fajardo told one lie too many this week, landing him in a prison cell a lot sooner and for a lot longer than he was expecting.

As the alleged mastermind of the $4.3 million corruption scheme at the island school system scheme he once directed, there is justice to the fact that that he will likely spend a long time behind prison bars.

But because of Fajardo's lies, federal prosecutors dropped charges against 10 other people, mostly businessmen only too happy to pay off Fajardo in exchange for multi-million contracts with the agency.

The Education Department corruption scheme shocked Puerto Rico last January when Fajardo, two of his former top aides, and 15 businessmen, including the Chamber of Commerce president, were arrested by federal agents following their indictment.

But people here were just as shocked this week when the case took a bizarre turn to arrive at its premature end.

Eight people, including Fajardo, already pleaded guilty in the case, and their convictions will not be impacted by the turn of events.

But Senior Litigation Counsel Guillermo Gil, the former head of the US Attorney's Office here who has spearheaded a drive to root out public corruption in Puerto Rico since 1998, abruptly interrupted the trial this week of the first three defendants to say that Fajardo had committed perjury on the stand.

Because of that, the US Attorney's Office decided to drop charges against the remaining 10 defendants, the three on trial and the seven still waiting trial.

U.S. Attorney H.S. "Bert" García backed the decision. "When they realized Fajardo was lying, they immediately told me what was going on and that we needed to dismiss the charges. Fajardo hid some information and twisted other information."

The lies Fajardo told in open court pertained to a company established by he and his wife -- Community Services Training, Inc. -- which allegedly laundered some of the extorted money. Speculation on why he lied centered on efforts to save his family and himself from prosecution by the local Justice Department.

Fajardo had cut a deal with federal prosecutors that would have limited his jail time to a few years in prison. Now he faces up to 110 years on all counts, and criminal defense lawyers say he will "easily" serve from 10 to 20 years.

But criminal attorneys who were watching the proceedings expressed shock as to why the federal prosecutors dropped the case against all defendants, noting that other witnesses, such as Fajardo's former right hand, José Omar Cruz, could have substantiated Fajardo's testimony about the Education pay-offs for contracts scheme.

Some attorneys say that Gil had known for a lot longer than he acknowledged about Fajardo's lies and therefore dismissed the case to save himself from a prosecutorial misconduct investigation. Others believe the Feds simply wanted to nail Fajardo as he continued lying because he was the one player most responsible for the corruption scheme undertaken on his watch.

García said simply it was the right thing to do from the ethical standpoint, even though his office had sufficient evidence to continue its prosecutions.

New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera immediately pounced on the news by saying that the party would not conduct an audit to see if the $1 million in extorted funds made it into NPP coffers, as federal prosecutors alleged.

"There is no knowledge of illegal contributions. There were accusations but those ended when the case fell yesterday," he said.

Pesquera is right to say that an audit would not turn up evidence that embezzled funds made it into the party coffers, but he is wrong for not launching an investigation into the alleged illegal contributions by government contractors.

Puerto Ricans still want to see whose fingerprints are on that money, and Pesquera should initiate a thorough inquiry if he hopes to restore credibility to the NPP.

Local prosecutors, meanwhile, say they will prosecute everyone involved in the scheme in local courts, which could also include the NPP.

It would be a smart political move for Pesquera to do some house cleaning before then.

Despite the shadow of corruption hanging over the NPP, the Popular Democratic Party has been unable to solidify popular opinion behind it and the Calderón administration.

Crime is up, the economy is down, and people are frustrated.

Meanwhile, the other big court story of the week involved the PDP-controlled House's ridiculous refusal to swear in NPP Rep.-elect Edwin Mundo until a House panel judged his fitness for office because of the rioting charges he faces over the flag flap at a government office last June.

There was no surprise here: a federal judge ordered him sworn in by noon Tuesday, a day after Mundo filed a legal motion in local and federal courts.

While House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrando did swear Mundo into office, it was after the judge's deadline. He made a point of saying the move responded to the House approval of the special panel's recommendation that Mundo take office, not the order of the federal court.

Such esoteric autonomous tendencies are bad news for the PDP, and for Vizcarrando, who could still be slapped with a contempt of court citation for failing to comply with the judge's order.

But the NPP cannot rely on Fajardo's lies to step free of the shadow of corruption that still hangs over it.

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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