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Allentown Morning Call

Rossello In Pension Flap

By Matthew Hay Brown of The Morning Call

June 23, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Through the corruption scandals that plagued the eight-year administration of Gov. Pedro Rossello, opponents seethed at their inability to link the charismatic leader to any wrongdoing.

But now that Rossello is back in politics -- and leading in the race for governor of this Caribbean U.S. territory -- they think they finally have found their smoking gun.

At issue is whether Rossello earned the $52,500 pension he has received since leaving office in 2001.

But what is at stake may be much more: whether voters here will return the two-term governor to La Fortaleza to resume his campaign for Puerto Rico's statehood.

It has come down to a simple question: Did Rossello work at the psychiatric hospital here during the summers he was home from college in the early 1960s? Or was he too busy representing Puerto Rico in tennis tournaments overseas and taking classes at Harvard?

The New Progressive Party leader claimed the summer employment from 1962 to 1964 as part of the 30 years of public service he needed to max out his government pension after declining to run for a third term.

But the Department of Health, now controlled by the Popular Democratic Party, says it has no record that Rossello worked at the San Juan Psychiatric Hospital before 1966. Health Secretary Johnny Rullan has said that the position Rossello says he filled never existed, and the salary he says he earned is unrealistic.

The agency that oversees government-employee retirement benefits has given Rossello until today to deliver any documents that might prove he worked the dates in question before it decides whether to trim his pension by $23,000 and demand he pay back the difference from previous years.

Rossello insists he worked the full 30 years. He has vowed to fight any adjustment to his pension in the courts, if necessary, "on principle."

The battle appears set to rage on through the summer, while drowning out discussion of other serious issues -- crime, education, health care -- confronting this island of 3.9 million.

The case of the "Cadillac Pension," as it has been dubbed here, renews efforts by the Popular Democrats to connect Rossello to corruption.

More than two dozen former officials of his administration, including a secretary of education and two deputy chiefs of staff, have been convicted of schemes that included diverting $4.3 million in federal education funds and stealing $2.2 million meant for AIDS patients.

Rossello, who has not been connected to any crime, has said he did not know about any wrongdoing on his watch. Last week, he proposed a new anti-corruption agency, headed by a former federal magistrate, as part of his anticrime and public-safety platform.

His New Progressive Party, meanwhile, sees politics in the prosecutions that have put several former administration officials behind bars. Supporters demonstrated outside the headquarters of the Retirement Systems Administration last week to protest what some called selective persecution and defamation.

The public reaction has been mixed. Sixty-eight percent of those polled by the El Nuevo Dia newspaper last month -- including 43 percent of those affiliated with his New Progressive Party -- thought that Rossello knew of at least some of the illegal activities of his subordinates.

But the same survey also showed Rossello ahead in the race for governor with 38 percent of the vote, against 31 percent for Popular Democrat Anibal Acevedo Vila and 5 percent for independent Ruben Berrios Martinez.

The investigation into Rossello's pension follows a series of reports in the tabloid Primera Hora detailing his participation in tennis tournaments in Jamaica and the United States from 1962 to 1964 and his enrollment at Harvard summer school in 1963 -- triggering an exchange of claims and counter-claims.

Rossello, a pediatric surgeon who studied at Notre Dame and Yale, says he studied and played tennis while working at the hospital where his father was administrator. His supporters have accused Rullan and file administrator Hector Mendez Alvarado of destroying his work records in an effort to discredit him.

Rullan says one can't destroy what doesn't exist. The government has produced a contract signed by Rossello to begin work at the hospital in August 1966. It specifies that he had not worked for the government before then.

Rossello has said he did not think his earlier summer work was significant enough to mention in the contract. He says he signed a similar document, with the same clause, in 1967.

He has produced sworn statements from individuals with whom he said he worked before 1966, but a 15-year-old law prevents the government from accepting those documents as proof of employment.

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