Washington - According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Juan achieved convictions for corruption against 375 federal and local officials, and private citizens between 2008 and 2017.
Puerto Rico ranks tenth among the states, territories and Washington D.C., with the most convictions for corruption at the federal level in that decade. However, all the states that outnumber the island have more inhabitants.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, when averaging all convictions between 2008 and 2017, Puerto Rico had the second-highest corruption rates per 100,000 inhabitants (1.01), second only to Washington D.C. (4.52).
The report that was released last year is a document that the head of the U.S. Department of Justice must send annually to Congress on the activities of the Public Integrity Section (PIN).
This information comes at a time when, according to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, there might be new corruption charges on the island, and President Donald Trump said Puerto Rico is “one of the most corrupt places on Earth.”
The document also reflects that more than a third of the 130 federal cases on the island were resolved in one year: 2011.
As state jurisdiction, in total terms, Texas (983), California (678), Florida (590), Virginia (510), Illinois (440), Pennsylvania (426), Louisiana (412) and Georgia (384) outnumbered the island in corruption cases between 2008 and 2017.
However, in proportional terms, only Washington D.C., which had 279 corruption cases, had a higher per capita rate than Puerto Rico.
“My intuition is that, in the last 30 years, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) has made its presence in Puerto Rico 10 times stronger than before. No one knows exactly, but they must have 150 (agents). What used to go unnoticed – like bribes – is now caught by the FBI,” said former U.S. Attorney Ignacio Rivera, also a political analyst.
Department of Justice report states that there are nearly 30 attorneys in the Washington D.C. Public Integrity Section, including experts in extortion, bribery, election crimes and criminal conflicts of interest.
In addition to expanding its offices throughout the island, the FBI now receives more referrals from the local and municipal governments in Puerto Rico, Rivera said.
On the other hand, cases of corruption filed at the state level are decreasing compared to those filed at the federal level on the island.
The conviction of former New Progressive Party (PNP) Senator Héctor Martínez and businessman Juan Bravo Fernández, who were found guilty in a new trial in May 2017 are among the cases included in the U.S. Justice Department report for that year. However, both convictions were revoked last January.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges – in the United States, Puerto Rico and the other territories – against 863 people, 383 were federal officials, 63 were state employees, 223 worked for county and municipal governments, and 194 were private citizens.
That year, convictions totaled 837, of which 334 were against federal government employees.
The report does not provide that breakdown by state or federal districts.
A recent increase
A 2010 study by Professors María Enchautegui Román and Eileen Segarra Alméstica, on the Patterns and trends in the misuse of public funds in Puerto Rico, revealed that, between the mid-1970s and 2001, convictions per capita for the district of Puerto Rico remained below those of the United States.
But Echautegui Román and Segarra Alméstica recognized, then, that federal convictions for corruption on the island grew since 2001.
Some of the most important corruption cases in Pedro Rosselló's administration, such as that of former Education Secretary Víctor Fajardo, were resolved within that term, from 2001 to 2004.
The trend of a higher conviction rate for corruption on the island has continued since 2008, as the U.S. Department of Justice report shows.
In addition to the extraordinary increase in 2011, 2008 (37), 2012 (30), 2014 (47) and 2016 (41) also show a high rate. Of those four years, the only non-election year was 2014.
In his attacks to Puerto Rico and its officials, President Trump accused the island’s political leaders of being "corrupt and incompetent."
He has targetted former governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and particularly San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, since he doesn’t seem to forgive her for alerting on the slow and inefficient federal response to Hurricane María.
For many months, Trump showed no deference to any government official or political leader. But attacks came back after federal authorities filed corruption charges against former Education Secretary Julia Keleher, her assistant, former Health Insurance Administration (PRHIA) Director Ángela Ávila and contractors such as Fernando Scherrer, former BDO president and Alberto Velázquez Piñol.
Recently, Resident Commissioner in Washington D.C. Jenniffer González said the credibility of Puerto Rico’s government in Washington is “zero.”
Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced, who has been in La Fortaleza for a month, plans to travel to Washington next week to have meetings with Trump’s administration officials and in Congress.
According to her Chief of Staff, Zoé Laboy, the governor’s agenda in Washington D.C. is focused on restoring communication channels to be more effective, restoring credibility and stability in this new style of an inclusive government, and also to work on the release of disaster relief funds to help the people faster.
Diaspora sectors warned that when Trump accuses the island's authorities of being corrupt, he ignores allegations that irregularities surrounding the island’s recovery also involve FEMA contractors or that the problem spreads across other jurisdictions.
For example, Maryland, with a Republican governor, had 80 convictions in 2017, representing a rate of 1.33 per 100,000 inhabitants for that year, compared to 13 cases in Puerto Rico (0.51).
Trump has also been criticized for ignoring the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution and constantly traveling to his private resorts, such as Mar-a-Lago (Florida); and that the former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scott Pruitt resigned under ethic issues clouds, and the conviction of his former Homeland Security Advisor Michael Flynn for the crime of lying to the FBI, among other cases in his administration.