PDP candidates demand House speaker ‘open up the books’ for transparency on personnel payroll record
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
Popular Democratic Party (PDP) candidates for the island House of Representatives Deborah Soto, Luis Collazo, Enid Monge Pastrana and Luis Collazo called out House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez Nuñez on Sunday for signing Administrative Order 2020-016, which they say limits access to personnel payroll records at a time when three New Progressive Party (NPP) lawmakers face prosecution for irregularities in contracts and inflated salaries of employees that are similar to schemes that led to the departure of five other NPP legislators who were charged with corruption at both the federal and state levels.
Soto, a candidate for the District 10 seat in the House, said the approved order, which was signed on Sept. 15, contradicts the purpose of Law No. 141-2019, the Transparency and Expedited Procedure for Access to Public Information Law. That law states that “access to documentation and public information must be efficient, economical and expeditious.”
“We understand that we are requesting that the House Speaker open up the books,” Soto said. “This administrative order [2020-016] is an attempt against our citizens and shows a lack of transparency. It allows information to be hidden and that it is an unhealthy intention as they [the House majority] do not want to be investigated.”
Collazo, who is running for the District 33 seat in the House, said the order establishes, among other things, costs for providing requested public information. Each page that is requested as a “simple copy” would cost 50¢, while each page requested as a certified copy would cost $1. Moreover, it costs another $2 per page for a certified copy in digital format.
“To mention an example of what the impact of the imposition of these costs would be, in cases such as that of Urayoan Hernández, the applicant Orlando Aponte was given more than 300 documents, the cost of which would be close to $1,000,” Collazo said. “We are talking about 50 legislators’ offices and agencies that have yet to provide any information. Therefore, requesting the documentation of all these would translate to over $50,000. This is definitely not an efficient, economical, and expeditious access to information, as Law 141 seeks; on the contrary, it is a gag in disguise.”
Regarding statements by Méndez that information such as payroll records could not be provided as it would reveal confidential information, Monge Pastrana said they were not requesting personal information from House employees and contractors. The PDP at-large candidate for the House said it is valid to request the aforementioned data because “citizens are the ones who pay their salaries.”
“What we requested is the list of all contracted service providers, the hours billed by these providers, and whether they render services directly or through a company. That’s not hard to answer. Also, [we requested] the list of individuals hired for professional services rendered to the office of a representative; in addition to the salaries, [we requested] increases authorized by [the representative] and the time billed,” Monge Pastrana said. “What the House speaker is saying is unfortunate; what he is saying is meant to confuse the press by convincing them that [disclosure of this information] would threaten the employee’s safety.”
Ortiz, a candidate for the District 3 House seat, said “it seems unheard of to delegate the decision to deliver the documentation to the absolute discretion of the person from whom information is being requested,” as the order states that any other court order can be overruled, which could lead to successfully suppressing public information.
“The country can’t handle this anymore. The country has to question what’s behind all of this. Even when the law was signed back on August 1, 2019, it still took Méndez more than a year to write and sign the order, but why? He did it when the feds were knocking on [representatives] María Milagros Charbonier and Nelson del Valle’s doors,” Ortiz said. “Who is the House speaker protecting?”