Saying the Commonwealth failed to justify its reasons for not doing so, the San Juan Superior Court on Tuesday ordered the Puerto Rico Treasury Department to make public the report produced by KPMG Accounting Services that is being used to shape the upcoming tax reform.
The decision in favor of the two news organizations that filed a civil lawsuit on Dec. 4 — the Puerto Rico Journalists Association and Sin Comillas Inc. — sets a strong precedent for freedom of the press as well “as protects the right for the people to be informed,” as per the order by Judge Aileen Navas-Auger.
“The reasons offered by the government’s legal representative to protect the confidentiality of the document failed to convince the court. The state admitted it is not a confidential document. It said once the tax reform bill is submitted, it would make the report public,” the court order stated. “However, it said that releasing it at this time would be ‘premature.’”
The court said the government’s legal representative, Attorney Noemí Cortés, offered “highly worrisome responses” when asked what the Commonwealth sought to protect by not releasing the report paid for with public funds, versus the right of the people to have access to it.
“First, the Commonwealth’s representatives admitted to not knowing the content of the document. That surprised this Court, because it’s very difficult or impossible to uphold a theory of privilege without knowing the content of a document that it is attempting to withhold from public access, especially regarding a matter of high public interest,” the order noted. “The lawyer upheld a vigorous but incomprehensible argument.”
The attorney said divulging the contents of the document that was produced last year would cause “grave inconveniences” to the public officials in charge of drafting the tax reform “as they would be exposed to having to answer questions from the press.”
However, the Commonwealth failed to offer specific reasons for the argument.
“In a vague and redundant argument, she questioned the interest of the press in the information and the people’s interests. She said the implementation of a public policy that has yet to be determined would be put at risk, and given its extensive and technical nature, releasing the document would cause disinformation among the people because they would not have the capacity to understand it,” the Court order further noted.
The lawsuit filed by the two news groups followed numerous attempts by the editor of Sin Comillas — a business news website in Spanish — Luisa García-Pelatti to obtain the document from the Treasury Department.
The agency must release 14 of the report’s 21 chapters by 2:15 p.m. today, as per the court’s 24-hour term. The chapters to be kept out of the public’s hands are unrelated to the tax reform, the Court determined.
“It’s a victory for access to information that journalists defend. Having said that, however, we would have liked for the Court to have ordered the release of the report in full. Leaving out seven chapters is an incomprehensible decision because Treasury has never said the document contains confidential information,” García-Pelatti said.
“What it said was that it was not going to release it prior to submitting the tax reform bill at the Legislature. We hope those chapters are also made public in the interest of the transparency that this government claims to defend,” she said.
Meanwhile, Treasury released a statement saying it would abide by the Court’s decision and will make the chapters of the report available by the deadline.
“However, we want to establish that the information the court ordered to disclose has been publicly discussed in recent days,” the agency said.