Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Motion for release of tax breaks report filed in Puerto Rico Supreme Court

By on September 10, 2019

Stateside watchdog groups considering filing friend of the court briefs to back motion by Espacios Abiertos

SAN JUAN — Espacios Abiertos (EA), or Open Spaces, a government watchdog group, filed a motion Monday before the commonwealth Supreme Court demanding the disclosure of the contents of the Tax Abatements report the government prepared and submitted to the Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB) in July 2017.

In its motion, EA is petitioning the island’s highest court to reverse a divided (3-2) ruling by the Court of Appeals in favor of the government’s position that the report should remain out of the public eye. The government had appealed a San Juan Superior Court ruling favoring publication of the report.

EA Executive Director Cecille Blondet said in a release that, stateside, information about tax concessions and exemptions is usually in the public domain.

EA Executive Director Cecille Blondet (Screen capture of www.youtube.com)

“In the motion, [we] state that the Court of Appeals erred in its appreciation of the facts in the application of the law, [given that] Puerto Rico Supreme Court jurisprudence establishes that access to information and documents generated by public agencies is a right protected by the Constitution derived from the right to free expression,” Blondet said. “Moreover, the information collected and contained in the report is not available to the public in any other place. It is the ministerial duty of the Treasury secretary to divulge [this information] to guarantee an effective participation by citizens.”

EA requested copy of the commonwealth Treasury Department report more than a year ago. Amid the agency’s refusal to provide a copy to the organization, it filed a mandamus motion at San Juan Superior Court. Last December, the court ruled in favor of EA and ordered the government of Puerto Rico to immediately divulge the requested information. However, the government insisted in keeping the information secret and resorted to the Court of Appeals to avoid publication of information Blondet said is “public in the United States since [the 1970s], as well as in other countries….”

Blondet said Puerto Rico cannot “remain in the dark” when discussing fiscal and budget matters.

“You cannot [work on a budget] without access to this information,” she said. “Before, the response was that information on [tax] concessions and exemptions was not available. Now we know that it is because it was collected for this reported. The country [Puerto Rico] has a right to have this report made public.”

EA has received the backing of Washington, D.C.-based watchdog groups that have expertise in fiscal matters. Good Jobs First, which publishes Subsidy Tracker on the web, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said they are considering filing friend of the court briefs in the Puerto Rico Supreme Court supporting EA in the case, Blondet said.

“In Puerto Rico, the battle for the right of access to information has been a years-long struggle,” Blondet said, noting that either out of “evil, fear or ignorance,” some people in private and public institutions “insist” on limiting access to information on public assets needed for policy decisions. “Citizens should not give up on enforcing a right that assists us. Although there is vast jurisprudence in Puerto Rico on access to information, we still encounter many obstacles.”

The case brought by EA over the tax abasements report was the object of multiple comments posted by the tight circle of La Fortaleza officials on the Telegram chat group that led to the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in July. Apart from the discussion of communication and legal strategies to be used in the case, the messages revealed how its participants carried out a campaign of intimidation and discredit against the organization and its executive director.

EA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that since 2014 advocates for transparency and accountability in government finances and assets in Puerto Rico.