Puerto Rico Fiscal Control Board’s Scandalous Secrecy Exposed

In a legal fight for access to information that has been going on for more than two years, the Fiscal Control Board (JCF, for its initials in Spanish) argued before the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico that it has not delivered public information to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, for its initials in Spanish) to avoid revealing which politicians accept public services reductions. This and other JCF arguments are contained in a motion that seeks to dismiss the second lawsuit submitted by CPI to gain access to communications between that entity and the Government of Puerto Rico. The second lawsuit was made necessary this year since the non-elected body that governs the island’s finances has delayed the delivery of 22,000 documents (out of a total of 40,000) that they have acknowledged would be responsive to a request made by CPI in a first lawsuit filed in 2017. The delivery of the first tens of thousands of documents served to source several stories about the Board’s communications with local and federal government entities included in the series “Los emails de la Junta” (“The Board’s emails”). Some revelations were even mentioned by Puerto Rican U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the Oct.

A combative year for transparency

The fight for access to information in Puerto Rico says farewell to 2018 with important court victories, but we welcome 2019 with a red flag about how the execution of public affairs that affect us today, and will affect us for decades to come, is taking place under a shroud of darkness worse than the one we had before Hurricane María struck. The intention of being transparent about public affairs was one of the things that the hurricane blew away and which has not been recovered. That said, we anticipate the need — as it happened in 2018 — for more individuals and organizations to turn to the courts to exercise their constitutional right to access to information. One example that the government is counting on secrecy on public affairs now that decisions are being made regarding the hundreds of millions of dollars in recovery funds, the debt adjustment plans and the privatization of assets such as the power system, is contained in two legislative bills moving forward on the issue of transparency: Senate Bill 236 (about open data) and House Bill 1095 (about transparency.)

In both cases, the Transparency Network, a work group that comprises, among others, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, by its initials in Spanish,) Open Spaces, Sin Comillas and GFR Media, presented amendments so the measures would not represent a step back or even a violation of current constitutional rights to access. However, after the suggestions were accepted and presented by House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, all it took was one call from La Fortaleza to tear the amendments apart and return the bill to its dangerous original state.

Un año combativo para la transparencia

La intención de ser transparente sobre los asuntos públicos fue una de las cosas que el huracán se llevó y no se ha recuperado. Por eso, anticipamos la necesidad de que, como sucedió en 2018, cada vez más individuos y organizaciones tendrán que recurrir a ejercer en los tribunales su derecho constitucional al acceso a la información.

Victoria del derecho a saber ante la Junta de Control Fiscal

Las veces que la Junta de Control Fiscal (JCF) ha intentado que los tribunales apoyen su visión de que la ley PROMESA que la creó le dotó de poderes expansivos, ha chocado con paredes judiciales. El más reciente freno puesto por un tribunal es bien significativo porque salió ganando el derecho que tienen los ciudadanos bajo la Constitución de Puerto Rico de fiscalizar a su gobierno y exigir la rendición de cuentas, incluyendo a la JCF. La victoria judicial se registró en un caso del Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) contra la Junta que estaba pendiente ante el juez federal Jay A. García Gregory, quien a fines de la semana pasada emitió una orden a favor del CPI para que la Junta entregue una serie de documentos. Durante casi un año, en el que ya la Junta había sido derrotada en su pretensión de que la solicitud fuera considerada dentro del caso de quiebras del Gobierno de Puerto Rico, el CPI ha estado luchando judicialmente para obtener acceso a nueve distintos informes que se supone sean sometidos con regularidad semanal, mensual o trimestral por el gobierno a la Junta. Además, se solicitan documentos, informes, cartas, correos electrónicos y cualquier otra información o material intercambiado entre el Gobierno y sus agencias, y la Junta y también entre el gobierno federal y la Junta.

Control Board wants license to be unaccountable

As it publicly sets off a strategy to strengthen its control over the management of the Government of Puerto Rico, the Fiscal Control Board is asking a federal judge to exempt it from having to render accounts to the people of Puerto Rico with extremely dangerous arguments for transparency. The fight for the Board to be an entity to which the minimum parameters of accountability apply is being waged by the legal team of the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) and the Legal Clinic of the Interamerican University Law School — attorneys Judith Berkan, Steven Lausell, Luis José Torres and Annette Martínez — both in one case before the San Juan Superior Court and in another before federal Judge Jay A. García-Gregory. In addition, the prestigious Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) entered as a friend of the court in the federal case that is the one we will outline in this op-ed. The controversy, fundamentally, is as follows: What legal standard of transparency and accountability will be applied to the Board? The positions expressed from the CPI’s point of view stress that the constitutional rank right to access to information that can be applied to any other Puerto Rico government agency applies to the Board because the PROMESA Law created the Board as an entity of the “territorial government,” not the federal government.

Junta de Control Fiscal quiere licencia para no rendir cuentas

A la vez que públicamente pone en marcha una estrategia para afianzar su control sobre la gerencia del Gobierno de Puerto Rico, la Junta de Control Fiscal (JCF) está pidiendo a un juez federal que le exima de tener que rendir cuentas al pueblo de Puerto Rico con argumentos extremadamente peligrosos para la transparencia. La lucha porque la Junta sea un ente al que le apliquen los mínimos parámetros de rendición de cuentas la está librando el equipo legal del Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) y la Clínica Legal de la Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad Interamericana -licenciados Judith Berkan, Steven Lausell, Luis José Torres y Annette Martínez- tanto en un caso ante el Tribunal de Primera Instancia como en otro ante el juez federal Jay A. García Gregory. Además, el prestigioso Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) entró como amigo de la corte en el caso federal que es el que expondremos en este escrito. La controversia, en términos fundamentales, es la siguiente: ¿cuál estándar legal de transparencia y rendición de cuentas se le va a aplicar a la Junta? Las posturas expresadas desde la óptica del CPI resaltan que a la JCF le aplica el derecho de acceso a la información de rango constitucional que se puede aplicar a cualquier otra dependencia del gobierno de Puerto Rico porque la Ley PROMESA crea a la Junta como un ente del “gobierno territorial”, no del gobierno federal.