Profiting from people’s needs must be punished
Serious claims of an alleged fraud scheme attributed to employees of the Department of Labor and Human Resources demands a diligent and rigorous internal investigation, and any irregularity detected in critical COVID-19 emergency response services must be referred to state and federal authorities.
If these allegations are true, it would be alarming and deplorable that people inside or outside the government are using citizens' needs for profit. In this case, the victims could be workers who have lost their income due to the pandemic and who have faced problems in receiving the compensation on unemployment insurance they are entitled to. If complaints are proven to be true, the administrative and criminal procedures applicable to the case must be taken no matter the consequences.
As of mid-May, more than 320,000 people had lost their jobs as a result of the emergency declared by the government three months ago. Many are still waiting for their claims to be addressed.
These complaints should serve to set off internal alerts at the Department of Labor and Human Resources, as well as at other government offices that provide direct services or handle confidential citizen information. This is not the first time that such allegations arise.
In October 2015, the Bureau of Special Investigations issued 38 arrest warrants on charges of corruption and fraud, among other crimes, against 23 employees of the Department of Transportation and Public Works' Driver Services Centers (CESCO, Spanish acronym). Workers from the Treasury Department and the San Juan municipal government, as well as a state police officer were among those people arrested. The group was charged with schemes to clear fines - for which they charged half the fine - and to carry out fraudulent procedures to obtain licenses. At the time, officials in charge of the investigations indicated that these employees had "their own micro organization," noting that they were not connected.
A year earlier, five workers, also from CESCO, some of them with more than 20 years serving as public employees, were arrested along with five office managers for participating in a fraud scheme for years.
Alone or in groups, we have learned of other cases of employees seeking to take financial advantage of their publicly funded position, in clear contempt for the mission to serve the island
Unfortunately, these illegal activities have to some extent counted on the cooperation of citizens who, to avoid delays and bureaucracy, are indifferent to corruption. Others agree to participate in these schemes in search of cost savings that end up affecting the island´s resources.
Corruption that in different degrees distorts the mission of the government of Puerto Rico is the main reason the federal government argues for withholding funds allocated to address the recent emergencies caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, and the pandemic. It also contributes to undermining the investment possibilities the island needs for economic recovery.
Employees and citizens have a responsibility to refuse to participate in these ethical deviations and to report to authorities those who do not comply with proper procedures to the detriment of public service. As more citizens desist from cooperating with these criminals, they are also sending a loud and clear that Puerto Rico wants and deserves dedicated and responsible public service. And at the same time, they are recognizing the work of the majority of public employees who every day do their best to comply with their duty.
All government agencies should immediately review controls in their processes and effective oversight. The culture of merit and sound management must also serve as antidotes to structures that avoid oversight and erode public service.