A Strange Week For Justice

by John Marino

December 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOOn the one hand, Gov. Calderón showed she has absolutely zero tolerance for even a whiff of corruption in her administration, when her Justice secretary referred a case against her Transportation secretary to the Special Independent Prosecutor’s Office that prompted his resignation.

But on the other, political opponents screamed "cover up" when the same Justice secretary on the same day, sent back to the State Elections Commission audits on the 2000 electoral campaigns of 16 lawmakers, as well as a report on a possible scheme by the Popular Democratic Party to circumvent spending caps during Calderón’s successful run for office.

Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez announced the designation of a SIP against Izquierdo at 2 p.m. Wednesday. An hour and a half later, Transportation Chief José Izquierdo publicly announced his resignation, and shortly after that Chief of Staff César Miranda announced he would be replaced by Fernando Fagundo, who was already in the department as head of the Highways Authority.

At issue were four contracts granted to Izquierdo’s previous firm that violated a section of the Government Ethics Law which forbids public officials from granting contracts to previous employers without first getting a waiver from the Government Ethics Office.

The contracts amounted to $496,000 -- a drop in the bucket when compared to the $800 million that Izquierdo authorized during his tenure. Rodríguez said there was absolutely no evidence that he benefitted personally from the contracts.

Izquierdo said he was advised by the department’s legal adviser that a GEO waiver was not necessary because the firm had been reincorporated as a new entity after he entered government. Reportedly, the GEO told him otherwise.

The Transportation secretary should have sought a waiver, but the price he -- and the commonwealth government -- has had to pay seems particularly harsh. Another key Cabinet secretary has been lost, this time by the administration’s own prosecutorial zeal.

Meanwhile, also Wednesday, Justice sent back to the State Elections Commission audits on the 2000 election campaigns of 16 former and current lawmakers as well as on allegations that the PDP central committee illegally transferred funds to the campaigns of individual lawmakers it had forwarded for investigation.

Rodríguez said the methodology used in creating the audits "lacked precision and prevented a determination on whether the crimes have reached the statute of limitations."

The information, she said, did not allow investigators to figure the corresponding dates for each receipt of income to compute the statute of limitations. She also said the reports lacked information to determine if lawmakers presented false financial reports to the SEC.

While Popular Democratic Party lawmakers hailed the move as proof that the audit process was handled badly, opposition party officials said the move amounted to a "cover-up" of PDP electoral law violations.

If that weren’t enough, also Wednesday former Popular Democratic Party Sen. Maribel Rodríguez, facing trial for misappropriating more than $2,000 in public funds, had the charges against her thrown out of court on what also amounted to a technicality.

Gov. Calderón had ordered the Justice Department to initiate a probe of Rodríguez, which it did, finding sufficient evidence to forward the case to the SIP, which also found grounds to pursue the case.

But a San Juan judge threw out the case because the Justice Department should have acted on the basis of a sworn statement, rather than an order by the governor.

While the SIP plans to pursue the case, perhaps by starting the procedure all over again, it’s not clear if the panel will be any more successful -- even though it has a bank of witnesses, canceled checks and a fishy invoice to back up its case.

The Maribel Rodríguez case is a clear indication that the urge to mete out justice has to be handled with reason, rather than emotion, if it is not to backfire.

But because of the timing of the Justice announcements, there is speculation that Rodríguez announced the assignment of SIP against Izquierdo in order to deflect attention from its return of the SEC audits.

The SEC charges could reflect on Calderón’s campaign, the argument goes, so the administration decided to throw the book at Izquierdo in order to make him a sacrificial lamb.

But the truth of the matter is that for years, government officials have been rewarding past employers with hefty contracts, most for much more than the pittance awarded to the offshoot of Izquierdo’s firm.

And for years, it’s been common practice for individual candidates to engage in coordinated ad campaigns for gubernatorial candidates; it is only illegal if their campaigns don’t pay for the ads. And the evidence the SEC has collected so far against the PDP centers on testimony by a single lawmaker who is disputing a bill by an advertising firm — while the great majority of lawmakers participating in the coordinated campaign said they agreed to foot the bill.

The real issue is that as Puerto Rico fights the corruption that has plagued it for years, it needs to be measured in its approach, and that goes for both parties in power and those serving as gadflies on the administration at La Fortaleza..

This week, in arguing that it is increasingly difficult to hire qualified candidates willing to be take public administration posts, Republican National Committeeman Luis Fortuño called for an end to the rabid political fighting between parties, which has plagued Puerto Rico at least as long as corruption.

"The price for a commitment to public service is too high nowadays. This raises concern about how this governor and future governors will recruit the best and the brightest," Fortuño told reporters. "The climate in public service is too partisan. We cannot continue to follow the Biblical eye for an eye because we are going to wind up with an island of one-eyed people. We collectively have to take a step back and see what we are doing."

That was evident on Wednesday.

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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