Days before the sixth anniversary of Hurricane María, a two-page supplement published in one of the island’s main newspapers, and paid for with public funds, disclosed that 100 public school sports facilities were being painted and renovated, as part of a collaborative agreement between the Public Buildings Authority (AEP, in Spanish) and the Department of Sports and Recreation (DRD, in Spanish). It also announced an investment of $94.7 million in 45 municipalities.
“The sports facilities of 100 public schools are being painted and renovated,” reads the “Todos por Puerto Rico” supplement published on September 13 on pages 14 and 15 of the “El Nuevo Día” newspaper. “The AEP is providing the paint and materials necessary to paint the sports facilities, as well as cleaning and preparing for the painting job. The DRD, for its part, oversees the workforce.”
The agreement between both agencies runs through June 30, 2024.
However, the content of what is published in this edition of the supplement — which is distributed weekly to promote the “achievements” of Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s administration — is not entirely true.
As part of the interagency agreement, the AEP identified 100 school campuses with volleyball and sports facilities needing painting and cleaning.
The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) asked for a list of schools that would benefit as part of the AEP’s initiative from communications officer Betsy Rivera. In response, the official provided a list of 90 schools, instead of 100.
When the CPI asked why they had not included 100 schools as stated in the agreement, Rivera explained that the others were not included because they required certain repairs before being painted, so they would be added to the project as they were repaired. The AEP’s public relations officer warned that the repair work of the sports facilities in those schools has not yet begun, and she did not specify the work start date.
DRD press officer Carolyn I. Muñiz Nieves provided the work schedule of the sports facilities that have been taken care of and those that are pending improvements from October to November. It includes 95, five more than the AEP list, and five less than the total alleged in the advertorial.
Muñiz Nieves explained that there is no list at the central level that both government entities share of the 100 sports facilities.
The DRD’s work schedule shows that 31 sports facilities have been completed as of October 6. And there are 64 left that are said to be completed between October and November.
The lists and versions provided by both press officers contradict the information in the advertorial, which said, at the time of its publication on September 13, “the sports facilities of 100 schools are being painted and renovated.”
Meanwhile, “Todos por Puerto Rico” lists 86 sports infrastructure projects outside public schools, such as stadiums, parks, and sports facilities. A breakdown provided by the DRD press officer to the CPI shows that these projects are in 39 municipalities, not 45, as the publication says.
“FEMA’s original obligation allocated funds for facilities in 45 municipalities,” said Muñiz Nieves. Subsequently, the mayors of Jayuya, Juana Díaz, Salinas, San Germán, Barceloneta, and Corozal agreed that they would carry out the reconstruction work with FEMA and CDBG-DR funds. “So, the current number of municipalities benefited by the DRD is 39,” she added.
Muñiz Nieves explained that there were instances in which the same facility was claimed by two different entities brought to FEMA. “In these cases, one of the parties maintains their claim, and the other drops its claim,” she explained.
The supplement also celebrates the investment of $94.7 million in sports facility reconstruction projects, when it is $90.9 million, according to information Muñiz Nieves provided.
“The $90 million figure corresponds to the estimated cost of the projects. That figure can change, and changes constantly, for different reasons such as: the final award of the auction processes, change orders, and final designs delivered, among others. In addition, we leave a contingency for any situation that comes up that requires additional funds to complete a project, such as an auction award for a cost greater than the estimate,” said Muñiz Nieves.
The DRD breakdown also indicates that there were only 15 sports infrastructure projects under construction as of September 21. The other 71 were at the auction stage or pending auction.
Manipulation and deception
The Publicidad Tere Suárez, LLC, an advertising agency, oversees the “Todos por Puerto Rico” campaign and its events, website, and supplements. The supplements are scheduled through contracts with the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF, in Spanish) and with the Office of Management and Budget. Publicidad Tere Suárez’s contracts with the Pierluisi administration exceed $36 million, although not all are related to “Todos por Puerto Rico.” The agency did not respond to a request for comment from the CPI.
The “Todos por Puerto Rico” supplement — particularly, the claim that “100 public schools are being painted and renovated” — gets the verdict of “misleading.” The supplement becomes propaganda when it exaggerates data on sports facility repairs in and outside schools.
The data was disproven, and it is evident how it was manipulated to incorrectly represent the status of the repair of sports facilities in Puerto Rico six years after Hurricane María.
Luis Joel Méndez González is a member of Report for America.