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The PRFAA Scandal


March 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The Calderon administration has major egg on its face.

The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA)-sponsored voter-registration fraud in Chicago reported last week seriously undermines the credibility of an administration that for three years has sanctimoniously preached cleanliness and transparency in government and has mercilessly chastised its predecessors for the cases of corruption under their watch.

Furthermore, the scandal calls into question the legitimacy not only of PRFAA’s massive Hispanic-voter-registration drive but of a host of other initiatives by the Puerto Rico government’s Washington-based office, which yield little or no benefit to Puerto Rico taxpayers, who pay for it all.

The case involves more than 2,000 bogus voter registrations, allegedly filed by employees of Near Northwest Neighborhood Network (NNNN), an organization with a $31,000 contract from PRFAA to conduct the voter-registration drive in Chicago. The effort is part of a $6 million campaign by the government of Puerto Rico to register Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Hartford, and Orlando.

Granted, Chicago politics have a tradition of being, shall we say, rough.

Nevertheless, the scope of the fraud allegedly committed by NNNN on behalf of the Puerto Rico government has surprised even Chicago officials. Chicago Board of Elections Chairman Langdon Neal reportedly said it was the largest case of voter-registration fraud he had ever seen. The Chicago Sun Times has reported extensively on the story; Chicago prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the matter.

PRFAA moved quickly to cancel NNNN’s contract, but the damage to Puerto Rico’s reputation was done. Plus, one has to wonder if similar cases will surface in the other cities where PRFAA has been running the program.

PRFAA chief Mari Carmen Aponte was quick to explain that the suspects, who allegedly were paid by the hour, not by the number of registrations collected, weren’t PRFAA employees, that they had no "decision-making power," that NNNN had been selected by PRFAA to do the work because of its good reputation, and that even if the 2,000 registrations in question turned out to be fraudulent, they would constitute a mere 1% of the almost 200,000 registrations the PRFAA has delivered.

Aponte and her boss, Gov. Calderon, said further that the government of Puerto Rico would cooperate with Chicago authorities in the inquiry, and that if the allegations were proved, the responsible parties should pay.

In other words: "I’m not responsible. I can’t possibly be expected to vouch for everyone under my watch. And let’s put this in perspective: Although we don’t condone it and favor punishing those who might have betrayed our trust, it was a minor violation given the scope of what we’re dealing with."

Sound familiar? It does to us.

It sounds very much like what we have so often heard from some former Rossello administration officials, including the former governor, when defending themselves from imputations of guilt by association in corruption that happened under their tenure.

Aponte is probably beyond reproach. We think she is an honest, righteous, responsible individual. She is a well-respected professional who clearly doesn’t need a government job. She is doing what she is doing because she believes in it, and she tackles her job every day to the best of her ability, looking for no more than the satisfaction of having made her contribution in the public’s service.

Are we to say Aponte is corrupt just because a contractor hired by the agency she heads may have committed fraud in the discharge of its functions?

Of course not. Yet, that’s exactly what the administration she belongs to has done indiscriminately to so many of its predecessors whose "guilt" was no greater than hers. Get the point?

The greater significance of this altogether unfortunate and embarrassing case is that it calls into question not only PRFAA’s voter-registration campaign, but many of the agency’s other initiatives under its self-styled mission to advance the well-being of Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland.

For starters, let’s clarify that PRFAA is an agency of the government of Puerto Rico whose budget is paid by Puerto Rico taxpayers. Originally, its main mission was to help Puerto Ricans from the island obtain migrant jobs in the States, mostly in agriculture. Later, the emphasis changed to representing the Puerto Rico government in Washington for the benefit of Puerto Ricans from the island. The justification for the agency’s enormous size–121 people in 12 offices with a $10.2 million budget–has been that, contrary to the states that boast full delegations in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, Puerto Rico’s congressional delegation of only one nonvoting member isn’t enough for adequate representation before the federal government.

As an agency of the Puerto Rico government, PRFAA’s main mission is, or should be, helping the people of Puerto Rico. That begs the question of what benefit do the people of Puerto Rico obtain from the expansive and costly PRFAA initiatives geared toward helping Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics stateside.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with helping our brothers and sisters on the U.S. mainland, particularly those who recently moved from the island and, for example, need help finding a job. But who should pick up the tab, and to what extent?

Are we so satisfied that our problems in Puerto Rico are so well-addressed that we can afford to use our own tax money to help Puerto Rican and other Hispanic communities stateside, when they have not only their own city, state, and federal government agencies to look after them but also full representation in the U.S. House and Senate, which Puerto Ricans on the island don’t have?

The following examples, all taken from PRFAA’s website, help illustrate the point. PRFAA’s Chicago office offers small-business development workshops. In Ohio, the PRFAA has been offering in-house workshops on strengthening personal finance and on buying a home. In D.C., PRFAA hosted representatives from New Jersey-based nonprofit organizations at a two-day seminar through which participants could maximize their opportunities for securing federal funds for their respective institutions and communities.

And the one that tops them all: In Philadelphia, PRFAA helped teachers seek new models for privatized education by sponsoring a trip for Pennsylvania educators to review Connecticut’s recently privatized schools.

Can you imagine the Puerto Rico government flying up to Connecticut members of the local Teachers Federation, principals and administrators from the local Department of Education to learn from that state’s model of privatizing public education? Why not? If it was good for Pennsylvania educators, why shouldn’t Puerto Rico educators have the same opportunity?

Then, there’s the voter-registration drive and other political efforts PRFAA makes on behalf of stateside communities. PRFAA’s Pennsylvania office participated in that state’s redistricting process. In Boston, PRFAA worked to oppose a ballot initiative that would virtually eliminate bilingual education. In Chicago, PRFAA dedicates a great deal of effort to supporting the area community’s fight against gentrification.

And, of course, the voter-registration drive in cities all over the nation reaches not only Puerto Ricans but other Hispanics as well.

All of these political efforts may be laudable, but as with so many things political, that’s in the eye of the beholder.

Do we know, for example, which stateside politicians would benefit from PRFAA’s efforts in the states’ redistricting process? Who are they and what do they stand for?

The fact is that all of these instances of the Puerto Rico government’s political activism stateside go on unaccounted for, far from the watchful eye of the local press or of the local political opposition. And they go on at our expense as Puerto Rico taxpayers.

The administration justifies PRFAA’s political activism stateside by arguing that it’s part of its mission to empower communities across the United States.

Sounds commendable. But can we afford a budget of $10.2 million for a stateside PRFAA operation to help Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics on the U.S. mainland when they have city, state, and federal agencies and full representation in Congress to help them? Or is there another, perhaps political, purpose?

PRFAA’s website candidly admits that "Gov. Calderon’s administration hopes political leverage from increased voter participation."

Imagine the possibilities.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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