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Boston Judges To Rule On Island Prosecutor's Tenure

by Theo Emery

June 9, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ASSOCIATED PRESS NEWSWIRES. All Rights Reserved.

BOSTON - Three federal appeals court judges will decide if the top U.S prosecutor in Puerto Rico holds his position illegally - a ruling that some attorneys say would cast a shadow over dozens of cases prosecuted by his office.

Attorneys for a Puerto Rican man indicted for smuggling cocaine asked the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday to dismiss the charges, arguing that it was unconstitutional for Guillermo Gil, the U.S. Attorney for the overseas territory, to continue to hold his job.

Gil's "interim" status was the focus of the dispute.

A federal district court appointed Gil to his post on an interim basis more than six years ago. In February, the same court dismissed the 1999 indictment of Fermin Hilario on the grounds that Gil has exceeded the four-year length of an interim appointment.

The U.S. government appealed that decision, leading to Friday's hearing.

Maria Sandoval, Hilario's attorney, said Friday her client was a "very humble and decent fisherman" and the "most basic and fundamental rights are involved here."

Sandoval said that dozens, perhaps as many as one hundred, convicted or indicted defendants have filed motions challenging the legitimacy of the U.S. Attorney's office in Puerto Rico.

Elizabeth D. Collery, a Justice Department attorney, told the judges that the lower court erred in dismissing Hilario's indictment.

Even if President Clinton has taken too long to permanently fill Gil's position, cases such as Hilario's should not be overturned, because such defendants have not been harmed as a result of a protracted appointment process, she argued.

The three-judge panel took the matter under advisement.

Gil's office has overseen and tried many high-profile cases, including bribery and corruption cases, that have reached the highest offices in Puerto Rico.

Within the last year, Gov. Pedro Rossello and other politicians took the stand to deny testimony that they illegally received AIDS funds. Five people were convicted in that trial.

Gil's office also successfully prosecuted the mayor of Toa Alta for demanding bribes for hurricane relief contracts, and the vice president of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives resigned after admitting in federal court that he received campaign donations above the legal limit.

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