The Persecution Argument Revived

by John Marino

May 28, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The Treasury Department is investigating former Gov. Pedro Rosselló’s tax returns, while the Commonwealth Employees Retirement system is looking at reducing his pension.

The Legislature, meanwhile, has launched a probe into whether any legal wrongdoing was committed in granting the former governor a pension based on 30 years of service, when reports indicate he could be nine months shy, and in keeping activated an official car and driver assigned to him while he was stateside for three years.

The Justice Department has filed suit against three mayors and six former mayors for around $500,000 for allegedly accepting pay raises that were not processed according to the law. All, except for one sitting mayor and one former mayor, belong to the New Progressive Party.

Justice, in highly publicized press conferences, also has referred cases to the Special Independent Prosecutor that in turn has filed charges recently against three officials linked to the former NPP administration of Pedro Rosselló. The charges were not for misuse or theft of public funds, however, but for Government Ethics Law violations.

In the parade of public corruption cases in San Juan’s U.S. District Courthouse over the past several years, it’s been a common refrain of those facing corruption charges filed by federal prosecutors that they have been targeted for political reasons because of their association with the pro-statehood party or governing administration. And that refrain, for the most part, has wrung hollow.

Federal prosecutors were prosecuting them, for the most part, for stealing public money or shaking down government contractors for kickbacks.

But the wave of investigations, charges and other legal actions by the local Justice Department and other agencies in the waning days of the Calderón administration has revived the political persecution argument.

With the Legislature jumping into the fray, that perception will only increase as legislative investigations drag into the height of the election campaign.

The frenzy of investigative activity could backfire on the Calderón administration, which has generally received high marks from the public for its anti-corruption moves, and actually help the NPP at the polls if the public senses that the administration is using the considerable resources of the commonwealth government to frivolously attack its political opponents.

There’s no doubt that Rosselló has some questions to answer regarding the $52,000 pension he now receives. And it’s also true that by declining to answer them, he has kept the issue alive, which unquestionably has hurt his campaign.

But statements by Calderón administration officials regarding potential crimes committed in the episode, and the full-blown legislative investigation, amount to overkill. A simple readjustment in the pension and mandating the former governor pay back the excess amount is probably the stiffest action required.

The Treasury audit of Rosselló’s tax returns for two years he was living stateside stands on even shakier ground. It grew out of questions, fueled mostly by the Popular Democratic Party, of whether the former governor met local requirements of retaining his residency while living stateside in order to qualify to run for governor.

You don’t have to be an accountant to know that being a "bona-fide Puerto Rico resident," the requirement for running for governor, is as much a state of mind as anything else, while filing taxes on income earned in a particular state is another matter entirely. Yet that simple disconnect, that Rosselló said he was a resident in candidacy filings while claiming non-Puerto Rico residency status on stateside tax returns, is the entire basis for the audit.

It was a stupid move by the Treasury to make in an election year, and will probably win Rosselló sympathy among voters. Treasury, after all, by its very nature is probably the most hated of government agencies.

The lawsuit against current and former mayors, the great majority of the NPP, also appears petty. In nearly all the cases, the biggest requirement for a mayoral pay raise, that municipal assemblies approve the hikes, was met. The justification for the suit, given by Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez, was so technical that perhaps only an accountant could understand it.

The view of the suit as unwarranted was underlined the next day when Comptroller Manuel Díaz Saldaña awarded two of the mayors high marks for their handling of their town budgets. ?

Finally, despite the administration focus on battling public corruption, in only a few instances has Justice referred to the SIP cases that resulted in the filing of substantial corruption charges against figures not already indicted by federal authorities.

The relative light charges filed recently against three NPP-linked figures who have not been indicted by federal authorities also indicate that prosecutors may just be reaching at straws. One defense attorney has suggested that the SIP lacks jurisdiction, and that the charges his client faces were an administrative matter better suited to the Government Ethics Office to handle through a monetary fine.

The election campaign is heating up. It’s true that many of the NPP complaints about political persecution are simply a shrill response to the good work of the federal prosecutors who have done much to cleanup corruption within local government and political parties.

Just as true, the recent avalanche of actions by the commonwealth government taken against Rosselló, the NPP and former officials linked to the two-term ex-governor and pro-statehood party is also timed to the campaign season. Gov. Calderón may be a lame duck, but her administration is still PDP.

Much of the gubernatorial race may come down to how the public views the actions of the commonwealth against Rosselló and other NPP figures, as well as the more serious developments at federal court in Hato Rey.

John Marino, Managing 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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