By John McPhaul
Rep. Orlando Aponte Rosario, chairman of the Judicial Committee in the island House of Representatives, announced Thursday that the committee will go to court to demand the appearance of former Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced as part of the investigation into the functioning of the judicial system through House Resolution (HR) 269.
The legislator’s statements came after Vázquez Garced excused herself from appearing at a 1 p.m. public hearing to which she had been summoned. The former governor and Justice secretary asked the House panel to receive her communication as her formal position on the subpoena.
“In view of the fact that she has voluntarily decided not to appear, we will be asking the speaker of the House of Representatives to exhaust all remedies necessary to demand the appearance of this witness, because it is relevant to have her testimony regarding the management and operation of the Department of Justice when she was in charge of it, and when she had appointed a person she trusted as chief prosecutor,” Aponte Rosario said at the opening of Thursday’s hearing.
The lawmaker stressed that Article 34 of the Political Code of Puerto Rico gives the Legislative Assembly the power to appeal or request the help of the San Juan Superior Court to request the assistance and testimony of witnesses, as well as the production and delivery of documents or objects requested in the matter, inquiry or investigation that is being carried out.
Vázquez Garced justified her absence from the hearing of the committee investigating the “functioning of the judicial system” saying, among other things, that she is no longer a public servant and did not know why the committee had summoned her.
HR 269 compels the committee to “conduct an exhaustive study on the functioning of the judicial system, as well as any entity of a quasi-judicial nature of the Executive Branch, including judges and courts, the practice of the profession of law, social services in the courts, legal services for state and municipal government and indigent citizens and the notary profession; and for other related purposes.”
After acknowledging the deposition summons and its purpose, the former governor, referring to the emailed summons to appear at the hearing, said “the resolution that was attached shows that the House of Representatives is investigating ’the functioning of the Department of Justice, among other law enforcement agencies.’”
“I ceased public service, as Governor of Puerto Rico, more than two years ago and [as secretary] of the Department of Justice since August 2019,” Vázquez Garced said in a letter to the committee. “The text of the communication does not reveal what has motivated such an important agenda to investigate the functioning of the Department of Justice. For this reason, we do not know on what aspect this honorable committee requests my appearance and what it could contribute to it. In fact, two secretaries and a chief prosecutor have gone before me, and 13 district attorneys in good standing should be in a better position to present answers to questions about how the Department of Justice works and provide a more up-to-date answer. We do not know if they have been summoned to the hearing.”
The former governor added that similarly, the document she received also alludes to “recent allegations of paralysis of investigations of active cases and/or relief of assignments in some cases of vertical assignment in some district attorneys’ offices.”
“We emphasize that the investigation of [matters referred to in] such statements is not contained in Resolution 269; from the outset, the document received by yours truly as well as Resolution 269 does not mention who makes or made those statements, what they are, to which cases they refer, who the prosecutors are who have made these statements, if any, if they are documented and even more, if under oath they have testified before this Committee,” Vázquez Garced said. “As you know, the Department of Justice has 13 Prosecutor’s Offices throughout the island and innumerable matters of a criminal nature, Family Relations and Minors are addressed. Each Prosecutor’s Office has a District Attorney and Prosecutors who we do not know if, in the same way, they have taken an oath before the committee on the allegation investigated. We also do not know whether the heads of prosecutors have been summoned or have testified about these statements and the Resolution.”
Vázquez Garced went on to note that the privilege of official information, “as contained in our Rules of Evidence and as an ethical principle … covers any privileged information received, if any, in its official capacity by any public official, including the Justice secretary.”
“Only the State, meaning the Department of Justice itself, in this case, could waive this privilege,” she said. “Its violation entails ethical actions against anyone who breaks down any information that is in the fiscal summary in a case that is still under investigation. We legally understand that the Secretary of Justice invoked this privilege. We are not aware of this commission appearing before the Tribunal to challenge this determination. Recall that House Resolution 269 mentions nothing about what was requested in the communication that was sent to me about the recent allegations. For the reasons outlined here, we will not be appearing …”