José Carrión. (GFR Media) (horizontal-x3)
José Carrión. (GFR Media)

Yesterday, the Oversight Board said that it will use all available resources for the Senate and the House to comply with the financial disclosure requirement of the federal agency.

"The Board will use any tool at its disposal," the federal agency said in written statements when approached on the subject.

According to section 104 of PROMESA, the Board has the authority to secure information from any person or government entity. In addition, it can request information through courts and, in case of contempt, seek to apply the penalties established by law. The federal agency also has the authority to reduce "at its sole discretion" - although under certain conditions - the budget of any entity, freeze hiring and prohibit any contract, according to PROMESA section 203.

The expressions of the Board were the response to the refusal of Senate and House presidents, Thomas Rivera Schatz and Carlos "Johnny" Méndez, respectively, to submit monthly reports on the liquidity levels that this branch of government manages, the attendance of its employees and their expenses in relation to the budget, among others.

"Absurd" request

Yesterday, first thing in the morning, Méndez described the information request from the Board as a "despotic" and "absurd" attitude.

"There is nothing in PROMESA or in the Federal Relations Act, nor in the constitutions of Puerto Rico and the United States, that puts the Board as our attendance supervisor, and as a 'manager' of the Puerto Rican legislative process," Méndez said.

Rivera Schatz responded to the Board in two ways. Firstly, he did so through Facebook, noting that "the vast majority" of the information of interest to the Board is available on "the website since the beginning of our management in 2017".

Then, Rivera Schatz wrote to the executive director of the Board, Natalie Jaresko, urging that with "the greatest sense of urgency", the rules imposed on the Legislature be applied. Specifically, the senator asked the Board to submit its cash balances, the agency's expenses, the attendance of its employees, bank reconciliations, the reimbursements and gifts received by Board officers, officials and their police personnel.

Incomplete information

Yesterday, the Senate sent El Nuevo Día several links to documents published by that entity that provide information on its operations. However, contrary to the expressions of Rivera Schatz, such documents do not seem to offer the information requested by the Board.

or example, the attendance reports correspond to the participation of lawmakers in the sessions in the floor or public hearings; activities that, although frequent, would not necessarily reflect the total attendance in a working month.

Another report - updated yesterday - provides detail of awarded contracts. A third report explains how much was spent on events such as the Women's Week special session, the Municipal Summit and the expenses associated with the opening of the senatorial office in the federal capital. But there are no details of expenses compared to the budget.

In the case of the House, El Nuevo Día requested information on the use of its funds, but received no response.

The House publishes on the internet its legislators’ attendance, but no information regarding the use it gives to taxpayers' money was found.

El Nuevo Día asked Senator Eduardo Bhatia if while he was president of the Senate, details of budget spending were offered.

Bhatia explained that there was a clear guideline to provide all the information that was required by the press, but admitted that more could have been done, making the information available through the website, which did not happen.

Bhatia explained that in the Legislature there is no regulation to make budget disclosures.

The legislator classified the request of the Board as "meddling", but indicated that the Legislature should disclose its financial status.

Oversight agencies

While the Legislature faces the request of the Board, in the Judicial Branch and other agencies there seemed to be no objections as long as they are "reasonable" requests.

"In the meetings and conversations we have had with the Board or its staff, we have expressed our willingness to share with them public information about our budgetary and administrative management," said Administrative Judge, Sigfrido Steidel Figueroa. "Regarding the request published by the Board, insofar as it is a request that seeks to make public management transparent and does not exceed the scope of the Board, we do not object to its production," he added.

The Board also required reports on cash balances, bank accounts, attendance and expenses to the Civil Rights Commission, the Office of the Comptroller and the Office of Government Ethics (OGE).

The comptroller of Puerto Rico, Yesmín M. Valdivieso, indicated that she has no problem with providing the information requested by the Board.

However, like Steidel Figueroa, she said that it depends on how far the petition extends and the specificity required.

"This year when they tried to cut my budget, I defended it. They have to give me enough budget to do the audit work and allow me to have the necessary independence they require," said Valdivieso, who today will sign a collaboration agreement with the Board so that they have access to the database they generate.

"I have to have the necessary resources, and if I have to fight for my budget every year, that puts a very big limitation on me," the comptroller added.

Palmira Ríos, former chair of the Civil Rights Commission (CDC, Spanish acronym), regretted that part of the agency's limited resources are used to supply information that does not contribute to the work they do.

"When our social, cultural, economic and civil rights are most vulnerable, then the commission, which has been poorly funded for many years, now has to assign someone to inform the Board of a budget that does not reach $ 1.3 million," she said.

An act of revenge

The senator for the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), Juan Dalmau, said that "it is dangerous" that the Board "is interfering" in the budget of supervising or regulatory agencies.

The senator of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) Aníbal José Torres agreed and said it is necessary to mark a difference of "this interference" in the government agencies versus the Legislature and the supervising agencies.

Torres and Dalmau perceive the determination of the Board as an act of revenge towards the actions taken by the Legislative Assembly, among them the rejection of that body to repeal the Law of Unjust Dismissal (Law 80-1976).

"I do not have the slightest doubt that, in their execution, they are challenging again the front that was made to not give way to an unjustified proposal, a proposal that they could not defend with data, a proposal that was made to do someone a favor, evidently," said Torres, referring to Law 80.

The Independent senator, José Vargas Vidot, defined the order as an insult to the will of the people. "This is like legalizing illegal lobbying by an unelected power, because here I do not have any problem with there being an oversight of the operational and managerial powers of a country ... but I feel that it is outrageous, I do not support it, I do not see anything positive about it, "he said.

"Everyone has to calm down"

Meanwhile, Palma Senator Abel Nazario argued that the federal agency must have access to the information they are requesting.

"I think it's a good opportunity to meet. We have to calm down. I think it's in our interest, it's in the country's interest, and the problem is that if we do not move forward, the Board is still there ... we have not seen the effects," he said.

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