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Telecom Director Resigns

ALVARO Retana, head of telecommunicationsfor the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE),resigned on Tuesday as the two ICE board memberswho were fired two weeks ago by President AbelPacheco were reinstated under court order.“You have to know how to go home with dignity,”Retana wrote in his resignation letter. “Everything inlife is a lesson and this experience has not been anexception.”Retana and the two board members — JoséAntonio Lobo and Hernando Pantigoso — have beenat the center of a controversy that started last Octoberwhen they traveled to the Czech capital of Praguewith Ricardo Taylor, the top Costa Rican representativefor Swedish telecom firm Ericsson, for four dayswhen they were scheduled to attend a global telecommunicationsconference in Switzerland.The details of the trip were made public in February by Libertarian Movement Party legislators,who filed a complaint before the Prosecutor’sOffice, alleging the ICE representativeshad misused government funds.Soon after, the Executive Branch, ICEand the Legislative Assembly all begantheir own investigations into the matter.ICE was expected to conclude its investigationthis week.AT a press conference Tuesday, Retanainsisted his resignation was not related tothe trip to Prague. The official, whoworked for ICE for 18 years, said hisdeparture is the result of governmentspending restrictions that have nearly paralyzedthe state telecommunicationsmonopoly and are making it increasinglydifficult for the institution to continue tomeet the country’s telecommunicationneeds (see sidebar).His retirement will not be a suddenbreak from his duties at ICE. Retana took apaid leave of absence shortly after theinstitution began its investigation. By thetime he announced his resignation thisweek, Retana had extended his leave threetimes for a total vacation of three monthsand five days.During the press conference, Retanamaintained his innocence and denied anyinappropriate behavior on his part by travelingto Prague.However, he dodged questions aboutthe details of the controversial trip, andsaid he would wait until the Prosecutor’sOffice and ICE to finish their investigations.He did say the trip was a private matterand was paid for with personal funds.“It’s been an honest job and my retirementdoes not mean that I have violatedthe ethical, moral and legal values that apublic employee must have,” he said.“However, it has been a job in which Ihave had to think about my well-being, myfamily, my health and my emotional stability.”RETANA accused members of thepress and certain legislators of having“judged and sentenced” him before listeningto his side of the story. He attributedthis partly to the actions of “enemies ofICE,” although he did not name them.“I feel I have been falsely accused ofbreaking the law and have had my reputationdamaged,” Retana wrote. “… I knowmy conscience is at peace and know that Inever violated the trust of the people whoworked alongside me and supported me.”In addition to having served as head oftelecommunications for the past fouryears, Retana also served as director ofPublic Telephony and Mobile Services.Retana said he is grateful to ICE for all ithas given him.He said he plans to continue to work inthe telecommunications industry, andplans to meet with private telecom firmsoperating here to discuss possible employmentopportunities. He did not mentionany names, however.THREE hours before Retana resignedTuesday, President Abel Pacheco reinstatedboard members Lobo and Pantigosounder court order.Pacheco fired the board members July20 upon the conclusion of the ExecutiveBranch’s probe of the Prague trip (TT, July23).The final report accused Lobo andPantigoso of using public funds to pay fora private trip. It also revealed the boardmembers had traveled to Paris after theirstay in Prague to meet with representativesof French telecom firm Alcatel withoutrequesting permission from Pablo Cob,ICE’s executive president.Arguing the firing violated their rightto due process, Lobo and Pantigoso filedan appeal before the President’s Cabinet,which is still pending, and an injunctionbefore the Constitutional Chamber of theSupreme Court (Sala IV).The Sala IV agreed to study the case,thereby suspending the decision to fire theboard members until it issues a final ruling.Until then, Lobo and Pantigoso willremain on ICE’s board of directors.“Until the Sala issues a ruling, theboard members who were named last weekto replace them will be suspended,” JusticeMinister Patricia Vega explained duringTuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting.“Under orders from the Sala IV, we arereinstating board members Lobo andPantigoso.”The Sala IV has no time limit to rule oninjunctions.IN the injunction, the board membersargued the Cabinet lacks the authority toinvestigate members of the boards ofautonomous state institutions with the intentof firing them. It can only conduct this typeof investigation if it has information fromthe Comptroller General’s Office that statesthere is a valid reason to dismiss a boardmember, the two board members claim.Pacheco said he would abide by thecourt’s order, but called it one of the manyreasons why it’s “complicated” to governCosta Rica.“We’re about to lose Costa Ricabecause of a series of obstacles that exist inevery area,” Pacheco said. “This is anotherexample of the everyday nightmares welive here in Zapote (where CasaPresidencial is located).” Landline Access Among World’s WorstAS one of his reasons for resigning ashead of telecommunications of the CostaRican Electricity Institute (ICE) this week,Alvaro Retana mentioned governmentrestrictions on the institution’s spending.Retana said he would have succeededin improving the quality and availability ofland phone lines, cell phone lines andhigh-speed (broadband) Internet had thegovernment not imposed such strict budgetcontrols on the institution and insteadallowed it to reinvest its revenues in newtechnology.“It’s like buying a house or a car andbeing told you have to pay it in cash,” heexplained. “It’s not possible to move forwardthat way.”Costa Rica is the 10th most difficultcountry in the world for citizens to obtain aland phone line, according to the mostrecent Global Technology Report of theWorld Economic Forum.Costa Rica ranked 92nd among 102countries in capability of acquiring a landlinein the 2003-2004 report, the daily LaRepública reported. Worse-ranking countriesinclude Haiti, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe,Chad, Kenya and Honduras, which ranked102nd.ICE attributes part of the problem todevelopers that build new homes andapartment complexes without installingphone lines. A new regulation that wentinto effect last week attempts to reversethis trend by requiring all new urban developmentsto install phone lines before presentingprojects to municipal governmentsfor approval, La República reported.Availability of new cell phone lines mayalso continue to be an issue. Two weeksago, the Comptroller General’s Officefailed to approve the sale of 600,000 newsecond-generation GSM cell phone linesto ICE by Ericsson, citing 28 objections tothe contract (TT, July 30).Originally, ICE planned to have thelines up and running by next March.Although Comptroller Alex Solís said thedecision to reject the contract was notdirectly influenced by the controversy surroundingthe trip to Prague, it was mentionedin the Comptroller’s report.The Controversial TripALVARO Retana and board membersJosé Antonio Lobo and HernandoPantigoso traveled to Geneva,Switzerland, to represent ICE in theInternational Telecommunication Union’sWorld Conference, scheduled for Oct. 12-18.However, Oct. 15-18, the ICE representativeswere in Prague, accompaniedby Ricardo Taylor, the top Costa Rican representativefor Swedish telecom firmEricsson (TT, April 23). The daily La Naciónlater reported Taylor had paid the hotelmini-bar expenses of the representatives.It is unclear who paid for the rest of thetrip, organized through a U.S. travelagency.At the time, Ericsson was involved in,and two months later won, a $130 millionbid to supply ICE with 600,000 new cellphone lines. Ericsson and ICE signed thecontract for the purchase in June. TheComptroller General’s Office recentlyrejected the contract, citing 28 differentobjections to it (although the trip was notone of them).Pacheco fired board members Loboand Pantigoso on July 20 because ofalleged irregularities connected to the trip(TT, July 23).A week later, on July 27, he namedengineers Jorge Gutiérrez and FranciscoLay to ICE’s board of directors.On Tuesday, Lobo and Pantigoso werereinstated. Gutiérrez and Lay were suspended,although they will be reinstated ifthe Sala IV rules against the original boardmembers.


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