Puerto Rico’s union scandals aren’t just big; they’re deadly. On Monday, March 12, Wallis Rivera Rodriguez, the new executive secretary for the island’s water and sewer workers union, whose previous leaders recently were sent packing to prison, was murdered. Rodriguez, looking forward to his first day on the job, was shot several times late in the morning in front of his home in Rio Quiedras, a suburb of San Juan. Police have made no arrests and do not have a motive. But only someone wearing blinders could discount the possibility that Wally Rodriguez’s killer was allied with the bosses who had run the union as a private slush fund.
The union, known as Union Indepediente Autentica (UIA), represents about 4,000 employees of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, or PRASA. After a lengthy investigation, a federal grand jury in October 2005 indicted union President Hector Rene Lugo and 10 other top officials for stealing from the UIA health fund. In all, argued prosecutors, union leadership over roughly seven years had conspired to divert more than $15 million in premiums, property and cash into separate bank accounts for personal use. Rene Lugo, eventually convicted in a jury trial, received a 17-year prison sentence, and was ordered to pay $2 million in restitution and a $20,000 fine. Seven members of the union executive committee received less severe sentences.
Current UIA President Jesus Diaz Allende believes Rodriguez wasn’t the victim of a contract hit. “I don’t even want to think about it!” he exclaimed. But union Vice President Radames Padilla is open to that possibility, saying he “could not discard” a link between the murder and union politics. San Juan Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo is going beyond admitting possibility. On March 14, two days after the murder, he revealed potentially damning evidence. About 48 hours before the murder, he said, Rodriguez had spoken of irregularities in UIA finances – as if the looting of more than $15 million hadn’t been irregular enough. The killing, admitted Toledo, could have been a last-ditch effort to avoid the release of sensitive information. “This could be about an effort to silence voices,” he said. The FBI is of the same frame of mind, currently evaluating whether to intervene in the investigation. One hopes the answer will be “yes” – and soon. (Orlando Sentinel, 3/13/07; prwow.com, 3/15/07).