CVM legislator proposes forcing corrupt officials to return funds

By John McPhaul

The minority leader of the Citizen Victory Movement in the House of Representatives, Mariana Nogales Molinelli, proposed on Wednesday a series of amendments to the Penal Code so that government officials found guilty of crimes of corruption are forced to restore to Puerto Rico the losses caused by their illegal actions.

House Bill 482 would establish the penalty of restitution as mandatory in cases of illegal appropriation of funds or public property, illegal use of credit or debit cards, illegal use of work or public services, alteration or mutilation of property, undue influence, omission or negligence in the fulfillment of duty and misappropriation of public funds committed by employees of the public service in the performance of their duties.

“Currently, the judge has discretion to determine whether or not he/she is going to impose the penalty of restitution. With this measure we are eliminating this discretion and establishing that, in cases of corruption, the convicted person has to return to the government and to the country what he/she stole or misused,” Nogales Molinelli said. “The potential loss of freedom is undoubtedly a very serious and regrettable consequence, but it does not repair the damage that has been done to the treasury nor does it appear to have been a sufficient deterrent for a [former Rep. María Milagros] ‘Tata’ Charbonier, a [former Rep.] Nelson Del Valle or a [former Education Secretary] Julia Keleher. They have to know that if they got rich or illegally received benefits at the expense of all of us, they will have to return what they stole or made us lose.”

The freshman lawmaker added that another of the amendments would clearly establish that such crimes would have a statute of limitations.

Nogales Molinelli acknowledged that changes are also needed to eradicate impunity and facilitate the investigation and prosecution of corruption cases.

“We know that if these crimes are rarely investigated or brought to trial, the sense of impunity with which we have already seen [perpetrators] act will continue to prevail, regardless of how severe the penalties are,” she said. “That is why we are also proposing amendments to the Comptroller’s Office Law to eliminate any automatic criminal immunity and to make it mandatory to publish the names of the people implicated in the Comptroller’s reports.”

The representative at-large said the bill provides greater and better investigative and retributive tools to the public prosecutor, which should give higher priority to combating corruption.

“We have questioned many times what the Justice Department’s priorities are in determining how it is going to use its limited resources,” Nogales Molinelli said. “Recently the case of five student leaders who now remain accused of interrupting a meeting of the UPR [University of Puerto Rico] Governing Board almost four years ago was reactivated. We hope that Justice will do the same and desist from continuing to extend a process that was obviously politically motivated and that represents a serious attack on free expression and assembly.”