San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Scrutiny Falls on Municipal Officials

Some of Costa Rica’s municipal governments have rung in the New Year with controversy.

Since January, three of the country’s 81 mayors have been charged with or are suspected of corruption or failure to fulfill their duties. Rugeli Morales, the mayor of Talamanca and a member of the Social Christian Unity Party (Unidad), has been charged with the most serious crimes.

Talamanca is a municipality in the southern Caribbean region that includes the towns of Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Bri Bri and Sixaola.

On Thursday, Jan. 11, Costa Rican Judidial Investigation Police (OIJ) officers arrested Morales and charged him with diverting ¢350 million ($636,360) in municipal funds to his personal bank accounts.

This week, the Prosecutor’s Office of Limón accused the mayor of taking a percentage of money that the municipality had earmarked for public works projects, lengthening a laundry list of corruption charges against members of his administration.

Press officers at the Public Security Ministry said the authorities suspect that Morales maintained close contact with a municipal construction materials supplier between 2005 and 2009. They said officials believe Morales received payments from the supplier, who was awarded contracts by the city council to undertake community repair and construction projects.

Morales’ lawyer told the daily La Nación that his client denies the allegations and claims the supplier and an official in his administration are framing him.

Authorities also have arrested a city inspector, a municipal accountant and a mayoral advisor whose last names are Bastos, Cortés and Barrantes, respectively. Cortés and Barrantes have been charged with aggravated corruption, embezzlement and activities incompatible with public service. Bastos has been charged with unlawfully dispensing political favors.

Last weekend the

Penal Finance Court

ordered two months of preventative prison for Morales and Barrantes, the mayoral advisor, while authorities investigate the charges. Bastos, Cortés – the city inspector and the accountant – and Morales’ son have been ordered not to leave the country or talk to witnesses in the case.

The charges could represent a complete lack of transparency and organization on the part of the TalamancaMunicipality.

The Tico Times called the Talamanca municipality three times and spoke with three different people this week to request basic information, such as the mayor’s political party affiliation. On all three occasions, the responses were, “We don’t know” and “We can’t find out.”

“It’s unfortunate when you see things like this,” said Gilberto Monge, mayor of the Municipality of Mora, west of San José, and a member of the National Liberation Party (PLN). “This happens for two reasons. One is because administrations just decide they aren’t going to do things right. Another is that some independent group denounces the mayor because he didn’t respond to their interest. Then, the mayor feels like he has to win them over.”

In addition to Morales in Talamanca, two other mayors also are in hot water.

Carlos Marín, mayor of Liberia, the provincial capital of Guanacaste, northwest of San José, on Jan. 28 was suspended from his post for three months. He was charged on three counts of failure to fulfill mayoral duties and two counts of disobedience to authority. The Second Circuit Financial Penal Court of San José has prohibited Marín from leaving the country, entering the Liberia municipal building and talking to municipal officials.

According to court officials, Marín neglected to uphold a June 2009 Supreme Court order to build infrastructure that would prevent floods in certain neighborhoods throughout Liberia.

On Feb. 9 OIJ officials removed fiscal evidence and other documents from the AlajuelaMunicipality, where Joyce Zürcher of the PLN serves as mayor. This action followed reports that the mayor had given questionable environmental permits to a company for the construction of a factory.

Zürcher has not been charged, but she is being investigated for alleged abuse of authority and political corruption.

“It’s worrying, but I don’t think this is a question of one political party or another,” Monge said. “This is a question of how governable this country is. It’s important that municipalities have enough resources and enough money to compete against independent interests to avoid corrupt behavior.

They also need to do things in the most transparent manner possible and look for space that will allow citizens to participate in every way they can.”

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