Governor's indictment adds to Puerto Rico's turmoil
By FRANCES ROBLES
Puerto Rico Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá tried to make his stroll down Old San Juan for an afternoon cup of coffee the other day look casual, but the gaggle of reporters and photographers following him gave it away: The U.S. commonwealth is in a political tailspin.
A recent 27-count indictment of Acevedo and 12 allies capped three years of political turmoil, further dividing an already fractious political scene. It put the last year of Acevedo's term in doubt and raised questions about whether the superdelegate at the Democratic National Convention -- who is a Barack Obama supporter -- can be a viable candidate in November's race for governor.
For now, the leadership of Acevedo's Popular Democratic Party is standing behind him -- and even announced a special legal defense fund they hope will reach $2 million. Already, some are griping that Acevedo can't possibly win the election. And although he said he would return to work this week as governor and candidate, Acevedo also suggested he would do whatever it takes for his party to win -- including step aside.
For now he is back at work, announcing new infrastructure projects and meeting with the chief of police.
But Acevedo already faced a difficult battle: The island is in a severe recession marked by an exodus of its middle class. A budget crisis two years ago forced him to shut down the government for two weeks. A teacher's strike just ended, and Acevedo enacted the first sales tax and raised water fees. Unemployment is rampant, and inflation stands at 15 percent.
''He won't be the candidate. He's dead meat,'' said political commentator Luis Dávila Colón. ``But he also definitely won't resign; he needs the governorship to mount his defense.''
Just seven months away from the election, the incumbent candidate has been charged with 19 of the federal crimes in the 27-count indictment, including using campaign funds to buy $57,000 worth of suits. Opponents have called for his resignation, and others have said it's time for impeachment.
But the governor with some of the lowest approval ratings in Puerto Rico's history is determined to stay in office and run for reelection. A few hours after he was fingerprinted at the FBI's San Juan bureau, his office put out a press release about global warming.
''Actually, I have a cabinet meeting right after this press conference and I will initiate my schedule starting next Monday,'' Acevedo said in a televised press conference after pleading not guilty in federal court last week. ``I want to invite the people of Puerto Rico to reflect about all this process and to look for ways on how this difficult time can make us even stronger.''
He asked the public for a little time and a little space.
Acevedo was charged with conspiracy to circumvent campaign finance limit laws. The U.S. attorney's office in San Juan says when he ran to become resident commissioner, Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in Congress, Acevedo accepted $7 million of public campaign financing, which required him to keep the costs of his campaign under $11 million. He surpassed that cap and allegedly covered it up by asking donors to pay off the campaign's bill with an ad agency, which in turn concocted invoices, according to an indictment.
Because his 2000 campaign was more than $500,000 in debt, Acevedo continued to raise money after the race through ''straw contributions'' and then lobbied on behalf of the consultants who helped raise the money, a grand jury indictment said.
He also is accused of using campaign funds for family vacations to Miami, Orlando and Costa Rica, plus airfare to China for his two children.
Already people are floating names of possible contenders to run in his place, including former governor Rafael Hernández Colón, Caguas Mayor William Miranda Marín and former Secretary of Commerce Alejandro García Padilla.
''Those who are talking about candidacies at this moment have not understood what this is about,'' Acevedo said in comments at a press conference Monday posted on the Primera Hora newspaper website. ``I asked the Popular Party for space, and the Popular Party gave it to me. Not the leaders, the people. That space for dialogue and reflection is just beginning. For this great battle, I will do what has to be done.''
Moments after Acevedo's indictment was announced Thursday by Acting U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, Comptroller Manuel Díaz Saldaña used his turn at the microphone to call for Acevedo's resignation. It was not long before Acevedo's opponent in the governor's race, Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño, did the same.
''If anything, these accusations, irregularities and leaks show me that the Popular Democratic Party has to win the elections,'' Acevedo said at a press conference held just after he turned himself in to authorities Friday. ``If these people can do this to the governor elected by the people of Puerto Rico, imagine what they could do if they had all the powers -- federal and state.''
If Acevedo stepped down as governor, Secretary of State Fernando Bonilla would take his place.
Acevedo and his supporters say the charges are a product of a Republican witch hunt. The Department of Justice has scoffed at the complaint.
''He will be making sure this doesn't derail him from what he has to do: be governor,'' Flavio Cumpiano, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said in a telephone interview from Washington. ``We believe that is exactly what they were trying to do -- derail him and get him to resign. He is not going to resign.''
Fortuño says Acevedo's policies put Puerto Rico in the worst recession since World War II, and said the governor has tried to cloak his crimes in false anti-U.S. patriotism.
''You don't have to be corrupt to be a patriot,'' Fortuño said at a televised press conference.
To make matters worse for Acevedo, the legislature is controlled by the New Progressive Party, Fortuño's pro-statehood opposition party, which routinely blocks his measures. Acevedo supports Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, and most political issues on the island are split straight down party lines.
Supporters say Puerto Rico's brand of politics kept the Harvard-educated veteran politician from making economic progress.
''What you have in Puerto Rico,'' says pro-statehood political analyst Benny Frankie Cerezo, ``are tribes continuously at war with each other.''
The son of a former senator, Acevedo was elected to Puerto Rico's House of Representatives in 1992. Reelected in 1996, he was House minority leader the following year. He has been his party's president for a decade.
A controversial figure known for keeping tight control on his party,
Acevedo faces the political fight of his life.