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More Corruption, More Political Ammunition

by Lance Oliver

August 11, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

When the Popular Democratic Party put its focus on government corruption during the early stages of the election campaign, it seemed to some more like a tactic than an honest assessment of the state of affairs in Puerto Rico. But when federal authorities, with the required token presence of local officials, hauled in 18 suspects on a variety of conspiracy and extortion charges last week, another huge boulder was added to the pile of evidence supporting the contention that corruption is endemic in political and government circles.

That pile is looking more and more like a mountain and less like a molehill manufactured for political purposes.

The latest arrests, the result once again of a federal, not local, investigation, involve the Municipal Revenue Collection Center, known as CRIM for its Spanish acronym, which handles tax revenues that go to the island’s 78 municipalities. The central theme of the allegations is that CRIM and municipal officials solicited kickbacks from contractors.

Among those accused are Bernardo Negrón, the mayor of Villalba, and Carlos Serra, the mayor of Corozal, both members of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, and the former executive director of CRIM, Eduardo Burgos.

Several contractors and consultants who allegedly participated in the scheme were also arrested, most notably Tommy Habibe, whose company was hired to implement a $56 million computer project for CRIM.

The indictment alleges that $800,000 was paid out in the scheme, going for such diverse purposes as paying Negrón’s credit card bills, building a gazebo on Burgos’ property, mortgage payments, trips to Orlando and the Dominican Republic, and other personal uses. But the government officials are also accused of funneling the money to the NPP.

That last fact cements the political value of the indictments for the PDP. Like the case of the mayor who tried to extort money for political uses by using federal relief funds, the NPP directly benefited once again from corruption. This gives the PDP free rein to thunder indignantly and puts NPP candidate Carlos Pesquera in the uncomfortable position of trying to downplay the importance of front-page news.

Clearly, corruption does not occur only in NPP administrations, either in the central government or the municipalities. How useful the corruption issue will be is questionable, because polls suggest, to oversimplify slightly, that members of both major parties believe the other is more corrupt and the unaffiliated think both of them are corrupt. So it is hard to imagine whose vote is going to be changed by all this.

In fact, the notion that one side is no better than the other may be the real problem. It’s possible that corruption is not so much worse now than before, but rather that it is being exposed like never before. Local FBI director Marlene Hunter has made it clear that corruption is going to be a focus of her office’s efforts, at all levels. She’s talking about the police officer on the take from drug dealers all the way up to top government officials who divert money without getting their hands dirty.

And Acting U.S. Attorney Guillermo Gil said this would not be the last batch of corruption charges to emerge before the November elections.

The twin roots of this problem may be traced to hubris and the age-old predominant attitude in Puerto Rico toward government. The hubris can be found among many people, but is especially prevalent when one party controls La Fortaleza, the Legislature and most of the municipalities. It’s easy to feel that power has been consolidated and a miscreant with the right connections can get away with anything, even if the deed is something as despicable as stealing money that’s supposed to be used to treat AIDS patients or siphoning off funds meant for hurricane recovery, to cite two recent and egregious cases.

But the attitude toward government plays a role, too. There is a reason Puerto Rico has such a bloated bureaucracy and highly paid legislators. It’s the view that has held back some Latin American and Caribbean countries, that government is not so much to serve the people, but to reward the ones who seize power.

Political campaigns are not just about a vision over which direction to go, but also about who gets the spoils. There are all those jobs to hand out, all that money flowing in and if just a little bit is diverted to my pocket or yours, think of what we could do.

The feds have promised more indictments, and as long as politics remains a battle over the spoils of war, there will be plenty of opportunities for the prosecutors to keep their word.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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