Washington, D. C. - The U.S. Justice Department warned Congress that it will need sufficient time to evaluate whether an upcoming referendum on Puerto Rico's political future meets the federal government's constitutional, legal, and public policy standards.
Justice warnings rule out disbursing before June 30, as the island's government would like, the $2.5 million that a 2014 federal law authorizes for a status referendum on the island if approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In responding to a request for information from the Congressional Appropriations Committees, the U.S. Department of Justice said that once it makes its evaluation of the documents presented by the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission (SEC), to comply with the 2014 federal law, it will have to submit its recommendations to those federal commissions and wait 45 additional days before disbursing the funds.
The report sent by the federal Justice Department to Congress - dated last April and which El Nuevo Día could access - made extensive reference to the letter sent to the New Progressive Party (PNP) government in April 2017, which concluded that any plebiscite seeking to resolve the future political status of Puerto Rico must include the current territorial status as an option.
According to the report filed in Congress, the federal Justice Department's evaluation of the upcoming "Statehood: yes-or-no" referendum in Puerto Rico would be in charge of the Legal Aid Office.
Although the report to Congress is dated April, it would have been sent this month to the U.S. House and Senate Appropriations committees. A December 20 budget law required the U.S. Department of Justice to deliver the report within 45 days, which was February 3.
Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced signed into law Saturday a bill that calls for a "Statehood: yes-or-no" referendum on November 3, along with the island's general elections.
Immediately, a White House official said: "The first priority for all Puerto Rico leaders should be getting their financial house in order."
The Puerto Rican law indicates that the government of Puerto Rico will only have to wait until June 30 to see if the U.S. Justice Department - according to the language of the federal law - determines whether the ballot, the education campaign, and the referendum management meet federal constitutional, legal and public policy standards.
If the federal Justice Department approves the ballot and the statehood referendum education campaign, the Puerto Rican government could have access to $2.5 million to help fund the referendum.
To date, Puerto Rico has only made one formal request for funding under the 2014 allocation, the Justice Department said about the 2017 process.
The congressional committee's request for information - which arose from an initiative by Democratic Representative Jose Serrano (N.Y.) - was based on a request for the U.S. Department of Justice to exclude the territorial commonwealth option from the ballot of any upcoming referendum on the island's status under evaluation.
But the report filed to Congress this month recalled the position taken in April 2017 that the 2012 plebiscite, with 54 percent of voters rejecting the territorial status, did not justify omitting the current status as an option on the 2017 ballot.
The 344-page document sent by the federal Justice Department included reports by the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico and the April 13, 2017 letter by then Acting Assistant Attorney General Dana Boente, which forced the PNP government to include the current territorial status option in that year's referendum.