A new string of chat messages evidences a businessman and his lawyer’s intention to make a profit in the midst of the pandemic.
A series of seemingly joyful text messages celebrating an agreement on a $38-million COVID-19 test kit purchase from the government of Puerto Rico is new evidence in knowing how local governmental transactions take place.
“The virus was productive,” lawyer Juan Maldonado wrote to Robert Rodríguez López, owner of Apex General Contractors, to let him know his company had obtained the contract for the sale of a million serological tests for coronavirus.
“Too many millions for a single Puerto Rican,” replied Rodríguez López.
On Tuesday, the lawyer delivered the chat messages to the health commission of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, currently engaged with investigating the enormous scandal of the failed attempt by the local government to buy serological tests from APEX, a small construction company without any experience in handling medical products. The company is, however, connected to the leadership of the New Progressive Party (PNP, following its initials in Spanish).
Rodríguez made his statements behind closed doors, allegedly fearing for the safety of himself and his family. He also claims not to be aware of what the business consisted of, despite the celebratory texts he wrote.
Many media outlets published the 72-page conversation on Tuesday.
This turn of events is the second time in recent months citizens have witnessed the leak of controversial messaging evidencing corruption on the island. Last summer, 889 pages of a Telegram chat surfaced, in which then-governor Ricardo Rosselló and his cabinet made fun of women, homosexuals, and even victims of Hurricane Maria. The chat ignited massive protests culminating in Rosselló’s resignation on August 2, 2020.
“The recent experience in Puerto Rico is an insight into how the government—and businesses tangential to the government—work using internet chats. Puerto Ricans have found this out through the press,” said Leo Aldridge, lawyer and political analyst.
This new chat string comes in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic state of emergency. The texts, reveal Maldonado and Rodríguez’ motivation to make a profit despite the severity of the pandemic.
Governor Wanda Vázquez held a press conference on April 8, assuring the purchase of a million tests had been conducted legitimately. She also announced the transaction had been stopped, and that she had ordered the cancellation of all contracts between the government and APEX. The chat, however, shows it was Oriental Bank who ordered the cancellation of the transaction when they noticed the large sum of money involved.
“Puerto Ricans perceive nobody is rowing on their side. No one is operating to resolve specific situations. [Maldonado and Rodríguez] celebrate with drums and cymbals, using rather derogatory terms. They celebrate becoming a millionaire while there’s a pandemic, while people are dying, while there are not enough resources,” Aldridge said, adding that “making money is not a crime and is an integral part of our democracy and system of government. But profiting from and showing off something so delicate does create outrage and further mistrust toward everything that has to do with the government and its business transactions.”
On a related matter, two laws regarding the legal right to information access on the island scored 73 out of a possible 150 points in an analysis published Wednesday by the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD).
Roselló signed The Law on Transparency and Expedited Procedure for Access to Public Information (Transparency Law), and the Law on Open Data (Open Data Law), the day before his resignation.
The CLD study concluded Puerto Rico needs stronger rules regarding the right to information in order to preserve constitutional guarantees.
“Laws are always important and the legal transparency infrastructure is vital. But more important still is the execution and enforcement of those laws. There, more times than not, government officials, irrespective of the party, fall short,” said Aldridge.