"So many times that it's embarrassing," said yesterday U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez. These words convey the frustration and anger of an entire community before a new episode of possible government corruption that humiliates Puerto Rico.
Such a shame seems to increase as the fraud unfolds: a scheme that links agencies with the explicit participation of their heads and of private sector executives. The actions of the six defendants would have cost Puerto Rico $ 15.5 million in federal funds that should have served our most vulnerable populations in critical areas such as education and health.
These charges, the first to arise from a series of ongoing federal investigations in Puerto Rico, struck a fatal blow on the Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s administration. Those involved include former heads of two agencies with priority missions on the Government’s platform, serving nearly 1.5 million people with limited resources.
As Education Secretary, Julia Keleher was in charge of designing a comprehensive transformation of the system, which included school closures, the implementation of educational vouchers and charter schools model. Rosselló intended to retain her as a collaborator when Keleher resigned amid versions that she was under investigation.
However, the actions attributed to Keleher lead us back to the $ 4.3 million embezzlement involving former Secretary Víctor Fajardo, which resulted in federal receivership on Education for years.
The Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration scandal does not help efforts for Congress to approve funds for the government's health plan, which covers 1.1 million medically indigent people. The public health program known as Vital, was reformed to operate throughout the island as a single region to facilitate access and expand services.
In both cases, the lack of controls that would have allowed the defendants to misdirect funds is inexcusable. Federal authorities have warned of more arrests. They are conducting investigations into the departments of Health, Education and Treasury; in the legislature; and several municipalities, including Mayagüez.
The systemic evil of corruption has stripped Puerto Rico of resources and services. It has eroded the government’s credibility, becoming a factor for the delay in releasing federal reconstruction aid after the 2017 hurricanes.
Puerto Rico is suffering a crisis of confidence in its institutions and, therefore, of governance. It is up to the political class to establish processes and structures that protect Puerto Ricans from the recurring shame that corruption causes.
As a crucial partner in public management, the private sector also has to embrace transparency and use control mechanisms as key components in their relationship with the government. The powers, responsibilities, and processes of public management must be clearly defined and respected.
Despite the hard impact that recent events caused on institutions and the collective psyche, Puerto Rico has reasons to persevere in the recovery agenda. Yesterday's charges are the result of the complaints and the cooperation of officials who refused to turn their backs on the people. The indictment details information from employees who warned of the irregularities and honored their positions as public servants.
We trust that federal investigations, with the cooperation of the local government, will identify those who have failed the people. The island must get out of corruption, discredit and demoralization behind.
While investigations continue, the government has to respond to the mandate that people have entrusted to them. In the immediate term, it is up to the government to ensure that these cases do not affect the release of funds that would provide health services and educational tools for social mobility to thousands of poor people on the island.