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The reasons for our oversight work on the U.S. Attorney's Office

A NotiCel Editorial.

This week, the acting chief of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Puerto Rico, Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Velez, took exception to a series of stories that we have done in NotiCel and did it in a way that could be interpreted as a threat against this digital daily if we don't stop doing such oversight work.

The statement gives us an opportunity to share with you, our readers, part of the editorial criteria that we apply when we decide which stories to work and in what way.

In any of the 93 jurisdictions in which they have offices (some states have more than one) the U.S. Attorneys are the highest representative of the authority of the President of the United States, who appoints them, although they also require the endorsement of the U.S. Senate.

The power of these officers is undeniable. It includes representing the Government of the United States in all types of legal proceedings and also being the authority figure that brings together all the other federal agencies that may have a presence in their jurisdiction.

Two things stand out from the official Mission Statement of the U.S. Attorneys:

'Each United States Attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer of the United States within his or her particular jurisdiction.'

'Each United States Attorney exercises wide discretion in the use of his/her resources to further the priorities of the local jurisdictions and needs of their communities.'

So in the officers that lead the U.S. Attorney's Office we have a combination of two elements with considerable breadth: 1) all the power of the Federal Executive and 2) ample personal freedom to use the resources of the federal government as they understand more appropriate.

This brings us to the situation in Puerto Rico, where the first U.S. Attorney was Noah B. K. Pettingill, commissioned in 1900 and recommissioned in 1904.

The current acting chief, Rodríguez Velez, has held the position since 2007 (prior to that she was the right hand of the former acting chief, Guillermo Gil) but her appointment has never been approved by the U.S. Senate, so she holds the seat via a mechanism in which, if there is no action by the other two federal constitutional powers, the federal judges of the District of Puerto Rico are entitled to extend a type of approval for the person to occupy the position. This implies that the powers described above for a U.S. Attorney are bestowed in Puerto Rico upon an officer on whom the counterweight of a public and political evaluation by the U.S. Senate has not fallen.

Thus, the current government power structure in Puerto Rico could be simplified as follows: the U.S. Attorney is the maximum representative of the President of the United States, the Fiscal Control Board is the maximum representative of the U.S. Congress and the Governor is the maximum representative of the People of Puerto Rico.

With all this background, is there any doubt as to why the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Puerto Rico deserves at least the same public scrutiny that is given to the other members of the political and governmental classes?

At NotiCel we consider that our professional responsibility is to hold accountable those institutions and people that hold power in our society. The more power, the more scrutiny.

It is this context, and no other, that frames our reporting on the U.S. Attorney's Office and its leadership. In specific regard to Rodríguez Velez, in the last 18 months we have dealt with two particular topics, besides routine reporting.

Last year we reviewed several orders and opinions from federal judges and magistrates that criticized the use, by the U.S. Attorneys, of police officers whose testimonies in federal criminal cases were not true. This was based, we repeat, in the writings of judges, not in rumors or 'innuendos' as the acting chief calls it.

In recent weeks, we reported on a civil action brought to court by a company that was founded by Rodriguez Velez's father and that had to do with public contracting, namely, firearms sales to state and municipal law enforcement agencies in Puerto Rico. In the case, Rodríguez Velez's own sister signed and submitted an affidavit in which she affirms that she is the President of that company, also, in another sworn statement submitted in the case, she is accused of having sold firearms at inflated prices to municipal police forces.

Again, these are reports that are based on documents submitted in court and on sworn statements, not on rumors.

In our reporting about the U.S. Attorney's Office, just as in the other oversight work we offer our readers, we fulfill our responsibility fairly and accurately, regardless of whether the work causes us to lose exclusive interviews or that we are kept out of the club that gets tips on who the U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating or who's going to be their next high-profile arrest. In the options of presenting the real facts to the public or negotiating privileged accesses, we will always choose to present the truth as it is.

'It seems to me that it is a very, very ugly innuendo and this has to stop', was how Rodríguez Velez chose to cut short NotiCel's questions about the sworn statements in the firearms case this week at a press conference.

Honorable Rodríguez Velez, with all the power and discretion that you have by virtue of your position, it seems to us that you owe the public an answer about what you mean by the statement that 'this has to stop' and what is it that you're willing to do if 'this' doesn't stop. Your Office should not be subjected, again, to the interpretation that you use your power according to personal favoritism or antipathy.

From our part, to eliminate any doubt, we will not stop doing oversight work on the U.S. Attorney's Office in Puerto Rico.

Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Vélez (Juan R. Costa | Archivo NotiCel)