SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A federal control board revealed Friday that Puerto Rico paid more than $28 million in salaries in recent months to people who no longer work for the U.S. territory’s Education Department, even after officials last year flagged the practice as a problem.
The announcement came during a meeting of the board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances as the U.S. territory government undergoes a bankruptcy-like process.
“This is total outrage,” said board member Antonio Medina. “It’s the worst kind of corruption. It’s stealing the future of our children.”
The board first publicly flagged the problem in late September, announcing it had contacted federal and local law enforcement agencies after discovering the Education Department paid more than $84 million in salaries to some 17,500 people from 2007 to 2020 who no longer worked there.
The board said the department failed to meet its requirement to implement a time and attendance system by mid-December.
“I don’t feel surprised,” said board member Andrew Biggs. “After four years of observing the government of Puerto Rico in action, this doesn’t shock me at all.”
He noted that the government years ago had invested $33 million in a time and attendance software system that is not used, leading to the loss of more than $84 million over more than a decade. The department has one of the largest government budgets, with $1.36 billion allocated in fiscal year 2021, and the board called for the budget to be adjusted if the more than $28 million is not recovered.
The Education Department has struggled in recent years with millions of dollars in damage caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and a series of strong earthquakes that began in late 2019 that led to the permanent closure of several schools along the island's south coast. On Friday, the government announced it was allocating $5 million to help renovate public schools as they prepare to tentatively open in March after having remained closed nearly a year since the pandemic began.
Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who assumed office earlier this month and is the first governor to sit in on such meetings, said he was not aware of the recent payments. He pledged that implementing a time and attendance system will be a priority, adding that those who collected pay without working for the government will be held accountable.
“They’ll have to pay one way or another,” he said. “Rest assured that we’ll deal with this.”
The ongoing issue comes as Puerto Rico continues to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load, accumulated from decades of unchecked borrowing of millions of dollars to cover ballooning deficits.
In 2015, the U.S. territory announced it was unable to pay its public debt. Two years later, it filed for the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in history.