Mercado Scandal Burns On

by John Marino

December 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The tumultuous events of last week have left Ferdinand Mercado looking very much like a liar.

Few in Puerto Rico today would dare argue that he were not.

Mercado's political opponents have long portrayed him as untrustworthy, but now his most stalwarts supporters within the Popular Democratic Party say as much in the aftermath of the train wreck of his political career last Friday.

In a rapid fire succession of events, Mercado resigned as secretary of state, Police Superintendent Victor Rivera released copies of a police report of a fatal car wreck in 1975 connected with Mercado and Gov. Calderón pulled his nomination to the Supreme Court for a third - and final -- time.

Mercado blamed the "unfounded" allegations on a bitter ex-wife, and said his connection to the crash was that a colleague had dropped him off at his home, and then went on to become involved in the accident that took his life.

But witnesses to that crash said the driver of the car that was hit had fled the scene, leaving behind the injured passenger who would go on to die. When a prosecutor investigating the case pressed for a police lineup, Mercado refused to appear. Police had witnesses instead look at a driver's license photo of Mercado,but they failed to match him to the fleeing driver. Mercado has denied any direct connection to the crash.

There are many layers to this news story, which has blazed through island newspaper headlines since it first broke, with a fresh new victim within each sheared sheaf.

At the center stands Mercado, who more than anyone else is responsible for this saga being called a tragedy without a hero.

Mercado may have gotten Calderón elected, but he has proven his political advice since then has been wrong-headed.

His nomination, first as Supreme Court chief justice, and then as associate justice, appalled political opponents who sparred with the secretary of state when he was the PDP secretary general with a sharp tongue.

And then there were those memos by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, accusing the Mercado State Department of misrepresenting the commonwealth's powers in the international community, specifically the extent of its sovereign powers.

Mercado had lied about the existence of them too, when they were first leaked to local media.

Former PDP supporters are angry because they believe Mercado did not tell them all he should have when asked about reports of the accident. And what about the character of this man, who damaged the governor politically by striving too high for a post he should have known he was never cut out for.

Fresh suspicions have now arisen about two police reports concerning stolen cash and a gun from his office while Mercado was secretary of state.

The matter has hurt Calderón politically. It shows a serious gap in her character judgment skills, especially since she fought so hard to make Mercado Supreme Court chief justice against tremendous opposition, even from within her party.

And it does not help that the Mercado affair has become a defining event of the Calderón administration, both from immediate and historic perspectives.

The scandal that ended Mercado's career also won't help the PDP 2004 ticket, as both Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and Sen. Roberto Prats had heard about the allegations, and passed them on to Senate Nominations Committee Chairman Bruno Ramos.

Although they both charged that Ramos and other PDP officials could have done more to air the charges, others are saying the same about Acevedo Vilá and Prats.

In the end, however, the affair has come to define the figure of Mercado, and it's not a pretty picture.

What kind of man would charge on in the face of fierce opposition, when many were calling on him to withdraw himself as a nominee, given the political fallout his chief justice nomination was causing?

Who would allow his or her boss to so fiercely defend that nomination, as Calderón did, knowing that there was an incriminating night in his past that could unleash a political storm tarnishing the administration?

That's especially so given that Calderón and others had questioned Mercado about the allegations, and had ordered the Police Department to hunt down an accident report, which initially it could not find.

Mercado risked not only a seemingly picture perfect family life and political career, but the careers of his boss and other political allies, when he failed to inform them he was pointed to as fleeing the scene of a fatal car accident, which was detailed in several police reports.

At the time, when he was facing critics during his confirmation hearings, Mercado, instead, fumed on that the Supreme Court was not a "Mount Olympus."

He tried to write off the opposition to his nomination as stemming from his humble roots as a Lares countryboy, rather than from his overt political career and his utter lack of judicial and even legal experience.

His reach for the Supreme Court fell short, and his attempt to make it there destroyed his career, which brings up the hubris metaphor.

But, again, Mercado is no a hero.

On the contrary, his position in the heart of the Calderón administration, and before that the heart of the PDP, will bring harm to both through his personal failings.

The only positive news for the PDP is that the governor won't be pushing Mercado for chief justice next summer, after her short-term pick Miriam Naveira is forced to retire.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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