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A presumption of stupidity, incompetence and corruption

"Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
George Orwell

The Rosselló administration has a language problem. It's actually more of a problem of abysmal dissociation between what they say and what they do.

There is no shortage of examples, but today let's look at the word transparency. Boy, do they like to throw it around! Transparency was on the tip of their tongues throughout the entire campaign, and now it's even the solution to Puerto Rico's crisis post-Maria because with transparency they'll manage to get the federal funds on which Puerto Rico's recovery and future depend. It's like an amulet, an evil eye azabache charm, used to ward off the doubters.

But that is what they say. What they do is something else.

Understanding transparency is not complicated. What we know as government exists because, through the Constitution, the people of Puerto Rico delegated all governing powers to the officials of the Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches. This means that the government is the public's, it is never private, and that all officials must answer to the public. It also means that, as acknowledged by the Supreme Court, there exists a presumption that all information managed by the government is public. What does presumption mean? It is something that doesn't need to be proven; it is already established. It means that confidentiality in the government belongs to the realm of the rare, exceptional, the clearly well founded... it's not just anything, just because.

However, even when transparency is a concept so, so... well, just that, so transparent, governments find ways to distort it. And the current one, in just one year, has shown it has a keen talent to subvert transparency.

Firstly, Executive Orders 10 and 11, signed by Governor Ricardo Rosselló within his first two weeks in office.  The 10th establishes the "public policy for Transparency and Access to Public Information" and, although it adopts concepts that were in a 2016 bill that was promoted by the Center for Investigative Journalism and by several civic groups, it also established 13 justifications for confidentiality. A bouquet of excuses for the government to not publish information. Then, Order 11 says that the Secretary of Public Affairs and Public Policy will disclose public information after the Governor authorizes him to do so. What? So, the person who is going to decide if something public is disclosed is the Governor? It seems like the presumption of access to information has a new name and now it's presumption Ricardo Rosselló.

See Executive Orders 10 and 11

Secondly, the "Transparency and Expedited Procedures for Access to Public Information Act" that the administration submitted to the Legislature after a discussion with journalistic and civic groups assembled under the Transparency Network. The detail here is that it was submitted even when the Network did not endorse the bill, because it did not specify the clear and precise circumstances that constitute a situation in which information will be kept confidential. A law with no limited and justified exceptions is just an enthusiastic invitation for officials to make up any excuse on the spot to deny access to information.

See the "Transparency and Expedited Procedures for Access to Public Information Act"

Third, the "Open Government Data Act", approved by the Senate, which contains 17 excuses to deny access to the government's information: 13 of them from the Executive Orders and a few extra ones for good measure.

See the "Puerto Rico Open Government Data Act"

Fourth, the confidentiality agreement that the employees of the offices of the Governor and the Fist Lady were asked to sign, until colleagues from El Vocero and El Nuevo Día disclosed it and then the Governor revoked it, alleging a lack of knowledge on the matter.

See the confidentiality agreement:

The difficulty of believing that this was done without the Governor's knowledge has been discussed elsewhere. But there's still a lot of devil in its details.

The document talks about "protecting" the Governor and the First Lady, but protecting constitutes the employee keeping quiet of what is seen, heard or read at Fortaleza. Read that again. They "protect" the Governor by keeping quiet about what happens in Puerto Rico's most important public office. It talks about how there is information considered "government secrets."  But, isn't everything to be presumed public? Where is and who legislated this list of what is to be considered a "government secret"? It mentions "copyright", "patents" and "brands", which gives away the sloppiness of a document that was copied from what is used in private businesses without a second thought as to how this should be applied to public administration. If you are an employee or public contractor, paid with public funds, you don't have copyright over anything that you do and you do not own any brands. The public owns it. It says that if an employee receives a court summons they must notify it to the Governor's Office and that the summons' answer will be coordinated through Fortaleza. In other words, if the FBI wants to investigate the Governor it wouldn't have witnesses that weren't controlled by the Governor himself. In the last paragraph it tries to play it safe by saying that the employee does not have to keep information related to illegal activities silent but, immediately after, it states again that this should not be understood as an authorization to disclose these illegalities.

And it was people within the Governor's own circle of trust who came up with these atrocities, recommended them, and prepared and supervised the process to get each employee to sign it. If this is not evidence of this administration's mentality and genetic predisposition concerning transparency, nothing is.

Public officials who believe they can deceive and cloak their intentions by mentioning transparency in each sentence would do well to get their acts together. The people have a saying to break which serves to splinter the government's distorted mirror of transparency: "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."

It's your choice, government employee: either you respect the presumption of openness and clarity established in the right to access to information, or the people will adopt a presumption that what you want to hide speaks to your stupidity, incompetence or corruption.

*The author is Editor in Chief of NotiCel and cofounder of the Center for Investigative Journalism.



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