PRico statehood party ousts convicted senator

AP News
Posted: Mar 10, 2011 5:37 PM
PRico statehood party ousts convicted senator

Puerto Rican lawmakers closed ranks Thursday around a senator convicted of bribery, ignoring the U.S. island's governor who ousted him from their political party and demanded he resign his legislature seat.

The conflict over Sen. Hector Martinez threw the party that favors making Puerto Rico the 51st U.S. state into disarray _ pitting first-term Gov. Luis Fortuno against the party's leaders in the island's Senate.

Fortuno said Martinez must resign because of his conviction Monday by a federal jury for accepting a trip to Las Vegas to see a championship boxing match from a local businessman whose company would have benefited from legislation backed by the senator.

Martinez, who represents the San Juan suburb of Carolina, has refused to resign and Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, an ally who met in private with others in the party to discuss the situation, has said he won't demand his ouster.

"It is a decision he has to take," Schatz told reporters.

Fortuno disagreed.

"He must resign immediately," Fortuno told reporters. "These are difficult times, I understand solidarity ... But what is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong."

Fortuno, as head of the New Progressive party, expelled Martinez, leaving him in the legislature as an independent for now.

Martinez could not be reached for comment. He did not attend Thursday's Senate session.

Lawmakers from the opposition Popular Democratic Party, which favors maintaining the semiautonomous commonwealth relationship to the U.S. mainland, also called for Martinez's resignation. It called his conviction another stain on a legislature that has been tainted with scandal, including the conviction in 2009 of another senator in a corruption case and the resignation last month of a senator who tested positive for cocaine.

"This is a national embarrassment," said opposition Sen. Cirilo Tirado, who filed a complaint against Martinez earlier this week with the Senate's ethics committee. "This legislature has been the worst legislature in terms of its history with people who have resigned following different accusations."

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia and other members of the opposition called for a vote on Martinez's ouster, but the New Progressive Party majority in the 31-seat Senate voted them down.

"He has to leave immediately," Bhatia told reporters, dismissing a pending investigation by the Senate ethics committee. "A jury found a person guilty. What is there to investigate beyond that?"

So far, at least two New Progressive Party senators, Norma Burgos and Jose Gonzalez, have publicly called for Martinez to step down but neither responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Martinez was accused of accepting a trip to Las Vegas to see a boxing match in 2005 in exchange for submitting bills to the legislature that allegedly benefited the business of Juan Bravo Fernandez, who owns one of the island's largest security firms. The bills did not pass.

A jury found Martinez guilty of bribery and conspiracy Monday. Judge Francisco Besosa dismissed the conspiracy charge minutes afterward, but then reinstated it Tuesday. Martinez's attorney is appealing the verdict.

Prosecutors based their case in part on information from former Sen. Jorge de Castro Font, who pleaded guilty in January 2009 to corruption charges for trading political favors for cash and services in an unrelated case.

De Castro Font, who was head of the powerful Rules and Calendar Committee, declined to step down when he was indicted, but he resigned weeks before he pleaded guilty.

House Majority Whip Rolando Crespo, who later headed the Rules and Calendar Committee, resigned in February after he said he tested positive for cocaine in a surprise and mandatory drug test.

Another embattled legislator is Rep. Luis Farinacci, who is being investigated by the ethics committee after his wife last year accused him of domestic abuse.

Sen. Jose Luis Dalmau said in a statement that Puerto Rico's laws clearly state that elected officials found guilty of charges including bribery cannot remain in their position.

"I hope this does not continue to be taken lightly, and that immediate action be taken to oust from public service those who have lost the trust of their citizens," he said.