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Anti-corruption reforms proposed for Puerto Rico 

Given the urgency to address gaps in legislation to combat government corruption and political investment, the civic organizations Sembrando Sentido and Somos Más recently presented four amendments to the “Anti-Corruption Code for the New Puerto Rico” of 2018 at a press conference at Interamerican University School of Law.

The four amendments are: amending the ethics code for government contractors; strengthening the process of reporting acts of corruption; revising the registry of people convicted for corruption; and strengthening the interagency anti-corruption group.

Public contracting is one of the areas with the highest risk of corruption. Specifically, it is estimated that between 10% and 25% of the value of public contracts is lost to corruption. Investigations by organizations such as Sembrando Sentido estimate that up to $3.1 billion of the contracting budget could be lost “as a result of corruption, misuse of resources, and/or inefficiencies in its processes.” 

One of the projects aims to focus on vulnerable areas within the government apparatus, such as prohibiting political donations from public contractors, addressing cross-nepotism, revolving doors and limiting the hiring of individuals convicted of corruption. 

“We have been working on these proposals for over a year, in collaboration with local and international organizations, to contribute to measures that reinforce a stronger anti-corruption framework,” said Issel Masses, executive director of Sembrando Sentido. 

Johnny Rullán, the spokesperson for Somos Más, emphasized that “these amendments, particularly the one that aims to address issues within government contracting, aim to discourage the ‘today for me, tomorrow for you’ scenario where contractors donate to campaigns, politicians or parties to secure government contracts.”

“Under our contract law system, at least 5.6% of government contractors are political donors, an action that is prohibited at the federal level and in more than 20 U.S. states,” Masses said, while adding that “we propose to explicitly prohibit political donations by government contractors for up to four years after the completion of the contract or the submission of unsolicited quotes or proposals.”

Masses further noted that, based on regulations in several states, the prohibition covers not only  the individual contractor – whether an individual or a corporation/entity – but also any person who is a member of the executive team, management team or ultimate beneficiary of the contractor legal entity. 

José Atiles, a professor at the University of Illinois, said, “According to recent reports from the federal Department of Justice, Puerto Rico is one of the jurisdictions with the highest number of cases of government corruption in the United States, with 375 corruption convictions between 2010 and 2019. 

“Unfortunately, the Anti-Corruption Code fails to address public contracting and other instances that foster political corruption in Puerto Rico. That is why both organizations also announced three other projects aimed at strengthening the process of reporting acts of corruption, revising and expanding the registry of individuals convicted of corruption, and boosting the Interagency Anti-Corruption Group.”

“In the coming days, we will be meeting with representatives to push for these much-needed measures in anti-corruption legislation, and it’s equally important that these measures respond to the people’s outcry and their lack of trust in public institutions,” Rullán added.

Moreover, the ethics code amendment for government contractors prohibits public donations, addresses nepotism, handles revolving doors and prevents the hiring of individuals convicted of corruption. These amendments aim to regulate government contracting. 

The amendment for strengthening the process of reporting acts of corruption provides more protections for whistleblowers and  sets up a robust reporting procedure.

“There is a need to highlight the importance of the role of these people within the anti-corruption scheme,” the amendment reads. “To work with these problems, we understood that it was fundamental, above all, to change the term ‘whistleblower’ to ‘alerter.’ This change is intended to give confidence to whistleblowers when reporting, emphasize the value of their contribution and eliminate these incorrect stigmas.”

Regarding the amendment for the registry of people convicted of corruption, it would outline the offense, quantify the embezzlement based on the sentence, and provide details of the sentence itself, including data on imprisonment, fines and restitution for damages.

Lastly, the amendments for the strengthening of the interagency anti-corruption group focus on ensuring government accountability.

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