Though elected officials don’t like journalists snooping around in their cities, they eventually accept it or prepare themselves to answer their questions.
But that is not exactly the style of Sweetwater commissioner Isolina Maroño.
Maroño on Wednesday reported to the Sweetwater Police Department as an offense the fact that a local television reporter was making inquiries about an investigation of embezzlement.
Maroño apparently didn’t like that Erika Carrillo, from Channel 41 America Teve, was asking people at a city elderly center their opinion about funds allocated to their programs being used to buy vehicles for other city departments.
According to the report, Carrillo had asked “if anyone knew that Jennifer Maroño, who oversees the elderly center programs, had taken money from the center to purchase vehicles for the City of Sweetwater.”
Carrillo, who taped her interviews, denies that version.
At first sight, Isolina Maroño could have just been protecting a department head of her city. But in Sweetwater the lines separating family, employees and elected officials are blurry.
Besides being the director of special projects, Jennifer Muñoz-Maroño is Isolina Maroño’s daughter-in-law. Muñoz, whose husband and former mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño pleaded guilty in a case of public corruption in November and awaits sentencing on Jan. 23, seems to have ordered in July 2013 that the allocated money be used to purchase vehicles without submitting it to the commission’s approval, according to Carrillo’s investigation.
The police report does not clearly establish Isolina Maroño’s concern. She would not appear as victim or witness of the alleged incident for which she filed a report.
The Sweetwater Police Department will not investigate the incident, spokesman Jorge Fernández de Lara said in an email to El Nuevo Herald.
“The City of Sweetwater does not investigate reports unrelated to a crime,” De Lara said. “This type of reports includes feuds between neighbors, dogs barking and disputes over a parking space. It would also include complaints of slander and defamation.”
Yet everything seems to indicate that another concern of the commissioner was that Carrillo’s story would be broadcast.
On Thursday afternoon Isolina Maroño telephoned America Teve and later visited it personally to label the information contained in the report as irresponsible. She was accompanied by commissioner Catalino Rodríguez.
El Nuevo Herald contacted commissioner Maroño for this story, but she declined to comment.
“I’m not interested in speaking to you. I don’t know how you dare call me,” Maroño told an El Nuevo Herald reporter before hanging up.
This is not the first time that the commissioner reacted aggressively to local reporters.
In October 2013, Maroño left a voicemail message for an El Nuevo Herald staffer warning her that reporters “are either paid or beaten,” after the publication of an investigation on the towing practices of the city police. El Nuevo Herald and CBS4, as well as America Teve, have investigated the questionable links to a towing company previously owned by Manny Maroño that operated a towing monopoly in the city since at least 2009.
Andrés Reynaldo, news director of America Teve, expressed his support of the channel’s reporters and criticized Isolina Maroño’s reaction.
“We totally stand by the work of our reporters, particularly Erika Carrillo,” Reynaldo said Thursday. “That is how people react when they don’t like a report that is going to come out and it’s also part of people’s right to protest.”
Carrillo asked that her journalistic work be respected.
“In this country there is freedom of expression and of the press and, though officials may not be comfortable with the information we run, our job is to present a balanced report,” she said. “For six weeks I filed public information requests and all the information I reported is based on Sweetwater documents and emails with responses that the city gave me.”
In Carrillo’s report on Thursday, she revealed that the organization the Alliance for Aging, with which Sweetwater has three contracts for services to the elderly, had begun an investigation into the use of the funds to purchase two 2014 Chevrolet Tahoe trucks for the use of employees of other departments.
The money for the purchase of the vehicles came from a fund that cannot be used for that purpose, according to the investigation.
One of the trucks was assigned to Johanna Rubio Muñiz, director of human resources. Muñiz is also the godmother of a child of Jennifer and Manny Maroño’s.
After Carrillo’s inquiries, Sweetwater Mayor José M. Diaz withdrew the vehicles from employees’ use until the investigation is completed.