The Senate Office of Government Affairs was shaken yesterday by the arrest of Angel Figueroa Cruz, one of the officials closest to Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, tasked with building links with the community in that body.
Figueroa Cruz, who until yesterday headed the Senate Office of Government Affairs, was arrested for certifying services allegedly not provided and that were paid with Puerto Rico taxpayers money.
Along with Figueroa Cruz, who also chaired the Bidding Board, former legislative advisers Isoel Sánchez Santiago and Chrystal Robles Báez were also arrested for an alleged scheme to fraudulently bill the Senate and the House.
Yesterday, Rivera Schatz tried to minimize the impact of these arrests, which are the first of "many more," according to Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, head of the Federal Attorney's office in Puerto Rico.
The senatorial leader said that no lawmaker has been accused and added that there are people who “have failed the trust, and if there is a contractor who failed, then he has to be held accountable.”
In Rivera Schatz's opinion, the case focuses on a couple that engaged in conduct that the FBI has investigated and prosecuted.
"And Mr. Figueroa Cruz is accused of having certified some bills," added the Senate president, who announced that he was relieving the official of his position at the Office of Government Affairs and that current deputy director Omayra López Cosme will replace him.
"This is about a person who presented some false documents and that person, in those bills, certified that this was true. That is a formal procedure in all government agencies and municipalities," Rivera Schatz said.
The bills certified by Figueroa Cruz are those of Global Instant Consulting Group, chaired by Robles Báez, who had a contract with the Senate between January 19, 2017 and April 30, 2018, when the agreement was canceled amid journalistic investigations on this matter.
According to Senate data, Global billed a total of $52,090 between the two contracts they had in that body. The amount of both agreements was $60,000.
Although the Federal Attorney's office accuses Sánchez Santiago, president of the International Legislative and Government Consulting Group, a company that had contracts with the House, no charges were filed yesterday against any employee of that body.
The accusations are directly related to the services provided to the Senate by the firm Global, whose president is Sánchez Santiago's partner.
According to federal authorities, Sánchez Santiago received from his partner transfers for $19,880 from the money the Senate paid Global.
The indictment also indicates that Senate President´s chief of staff Gabriel Hernández Rodríguez is the person who authorized the two contracts Global obtained. This official, who is a witness in the case is Figueroa Cruz's direct supervisor. No accusations have been filed against him.
These are the first accusations associated with the investigation into the "ghost contracts" at the local Capitol. The investigation began with the resignation of former representative Samuel Pagán and the allegations by his former employee Luis Hiram Delgado, who was allegedly required to bill as if he were a contractor for International when he was not.
House Speaker Carlos "Johnny" Méndez was not available to answer questions from El Nuevo Día yesterday.
Both International and Global were registered with the State Department on January 1, 2017, the day before the new government took office.
The Federal Attorney indicated that Robles Báez, on more than 15 occasions, billed, certified and falsely requested payments for having visited legislative offices to offer services.
"Actually, the defendant did not provide the professional services, but was somewhere else," Rodríguez said.
In addition to her contract as an interGovernment coordinator in the Office of Government Affairs, Robles Báez worked at Crepes by Us, an office she had in Humacao with Sánchez Santiago.
As part of the scheme, Robles Báez and his partner allegedly "utilized the personal identifying information of numerous individuals, without their knowledge or consent" to justify billing for services they never provided to the Office of Government Affairs. In the indictment, five people are identified as victims of identity theft.
Meanwhile, Figueroa Cruz authorized these fraudulent payments, the Federal Attorney said during a press conference at the federal agency's headquarters in Hato Rey.
"This is the first indictment charging the use of “ghost employees” to defraud the people of Puerto Rico," Rodríguez said. She added that it has been like this for many years, and "we will continue investigating and prosecuting this type of financial fraud to the full extent of the law."
The U.S. District Attorney's Office understands that it can prove that the defendants billed and collected at least $27,300. This figure represents the most conservative estimate of the investigators who worked the case. Rodríguez said it must be much more. "Our calculation is conservative, extremely conservative."
Release on bail
Figueroa Cruz, Sánchez Santiago, and Robles Báez pleaded not guilty in Federal Court, and Federal judge Camille Velez Rivé set them a $10,000 bail each. All three paid the amount imposed and were released.
The charges against Sánchez Santiago and Robles Báez include the crimes of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering and aggravated identity theft. In addition, they face a $27,300 confiscation charge.
Figueroa Cruz is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and intentional misapplication of property by an agent of an organization receiving federal funds.
The defense attorneys said their clients are innocent and rejected their participation in the scheme to defraud imputed by the Federal Attorney.
After the press conference, Sánchez Santiago's attorney Jason González Delgado said he totally rejected the allegations in the indictment.
"They are legitimate companies registered with the State Department," González Delgado said when asked about the allegation that these companies had billed for services not completed or provided.
When asked if he assured that the services were provided, González Delgado indicated that "that is so."
"There are other documents that contradict what the attorney´s office says, but obviously this is just beginning," González Delgado said. Regarding the request for collaboration issued by Douglas Leff, FBI special agent on the island, he assured that "right now, there is no cooperation."
Sánchez Santiago and Robles Báez were covered with coats when they were taken to Federal Court and did not leave through the main entrance, which is usually the place to exit after being released on bail since the building closes at about 5:30 p.m.
González Delgado said he did not know why they did not leave through the main entrance while reaffirming that Sánchez Santiago is not cooperating.
Figueroa Cruz, on the other hand, was taken to court without being covered and was wearing a blue shirt with the Senate emblem clearly visible on his chest. After the hearing, Figueroa went out through the main entrance wearing another shirt.
The former director of the Office of Government Affairs did not speak to the press. His attorney, Edgar Sánchez Mercado, said prosecutors would have to give them what they are basing (the allegations) on because "all this takes some channels and processes."
"It would be necessary to verify what they are basing this on. If it is because of the testimony of a person who says he did (what was alleged), we have to see how strong the testimony is because what they say is that they have a person who is cooperating," added Sánchez Mercado.
"They interviewed a lot of people, but what we have to see is that the person they say, who is being mentioned by initials, has enough controls to say that he was aware that my client was doing was wrong," the attorney said.
Melanie Carrillo represents Robles Báez. "She pleaded not guilty. There is no evidence at all right now. What we have are allegations from a prosecutor. It's very early," she said.
Figueroa Cruz's arrest n shook the Senate and also the municipality of Bayamón, where he had presided over the Municipal Legislature since 2002.
After learning of his arrest, Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera requested to relieve the official from his municipal duties. Last night, Figueroa Cruz resignation was announced. The Panel on the Special Independent Prosecutor had also determined to remove him from office.
The Federal Attorney´s office said the defendants participated in the 2016 election campaigns in favor of certain candidates but did not specify which ones.
Figueroa Cruz not only sought re-election in the Municipal Legislature, but he also participated in Rivera Schatz's electoral campaign and was a donor of his committee and the committee of the mayor of Bayamón.
His Facebook page shows his political activism with La Palma. His comments on the social network are full of photos and comments on the New Progressive Party's leadership, combined with messages of religious nature.
His post the night before his arrest wished readers good night, happy dreams and God's blessing over their homes "on this wonderful night."
Meanwhile, Sánchez Santiago has been an active member of the Youth of the New Progressive Party for years and an assistant to the Senate president.
After the New Progressive Party won the elections, Figueroa Cruz became head of the Office of Government Affairs in January 2017 with a monthly salary of $6,000.
Meanwhile, Sánchez Santiago was awarded contracts with the House totaling $238,000 and his partner agreed to contracts with the Senate for $60,000 through Global.
The investigation that led to the three arrests yesterday started in the local Justice Department and referred to federal authorities.
Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, who attended the U.S. District Attorney's Office press conference, did not explain the criteria used to decide to refer the case to the FBI.
However, the case was referred after the Senate president strongly criticized her.
Laura M. Quintero collaborated with this story.