Board sues Puerto Rico for details on coronavirus contracts
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances sued the U.S. territorial government on Monday, asking courts to order it to provide documents related to a failed multimillion-dollar purchase of COVID-19 testing kits and other medical supplies.
The board said it requested the documents two months ago and said that while the government has released some information, it has “completely ignored” repeated calls to turn over all documents.
“The rules for how the government spends money must be clear and transparent at all times, including under the immense pressure of emergencies,” Natalie Jaresko, the board’s executive director, said in a statement.
The government has already turned over more than 1,000 documents, and the island‘s Health Department has requested more time to confirm the existence of the documents sought by the board, said Omar Marrero, executive director of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority.
He said the government would evaluate the lawsuit, which he criticized.
“It represents an unnecessary waste of public funds,” said Marrero, who is also the governor’s representative to the board.
The lawsuit was filed nearly two months after Gov. Wanda Vázquez announced she was canceling all contracts awarded to people and companies whose names have been publicized as part of a local and federal investigation into an attempted purchase of $38 million worth of COVID-19 testing kits. Vázquez had initially defended the purchase order that was eventually canceled, resulting in the government recovering its $19 million deposit.
Vázquez has said she was not aware of the contract with Apex General Constructors, which had pledged to deliver 1 million testing kits from a company in Australia before the contract was canceled. The contract first reported by local newspaper El Nuevo Día.
Meawhile, a committee of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives held a hearing to investigate the issue, although it’s still unclear who approved the purchase.
The board said it is seeking documents related to the contracts with Apex, as well as other companies, including 313 LLC, to understand how those were negotiated, procured and approved.
“Speed and urgency matter in a crisis, but so does efficiency, accuracy and transparency,” Jaresko said. “Without transparency there can be no trust, and without trust, Puerto Rico cannot heal from its fiscal crisis that is exacerbated once again by a tragic emergency.”
The board has the power to review and approve government contracts, but it had temporarily relaxed its rules amid the coronavirus pandemic for the procurement of certain items. The lawsuit is the latest in a string of skirmishes between the board and the local government as they try to restructure a portion of a more than $70 billion in public debt load amid a decade-long economic crisis that has deepened as a result of hurricanes Irma and Maria, a cluster of recent earthquakes and the ongoing pandemic.