Senator Abel Nazario Quiñones is not 50 years old yet, and has spent more than half his life in the New Progressive Party (PNP) active politics, organization that withdrew him from the vice presidency, the undersecretary and all the assignments he had until yesterday, when he was arrested for allegedly committing wage fraud against more than a hundred employees of the municipality of Yauco, where he was mayor for 16 years.
The accusations - 39 charges - reached him through the Department of Justice of the United States , government which he wanted to belong to as resident of an incorporated state since he had the power to vote and directed the Juventud Estadista (PNP pro-statehood group) from 1991 to 1993.
In addition to the electronic fraud related to the salary of contracted employees of the municipality of Yaucan, the federal prosecution charges him of making false statements to the US Department of Labor in forms related to the these workers’ salary.
Yesterday morning, Nazario Quiñones should have been presiding a public hearing of one of the important commissions he leads in the Senate, where he was sworn in as senator-at-large in 2017. Instead, he arrived handcuffed to Avenida Chardón before judge Camille Vélez Rivé, who chose not to post bail, at the federal prosecutor's office request, who understood that the political leader does not represent flight risk or a danger to society.
Criminal accusations against the former mayor have its origin in an administrative matter when he requested 177 city council employees, between 2012 and 2014, to voluntarily donate two hours of their daily work because the municipality, immersed in an about $ 5 million deficit, did not have funds to pay them the full work schedule.
When, the US Department of Labor was made aware of the situation, it determined that this requirement of voluntarism for unpaid work violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, explained Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, top federal prosecutor in Puerto Rico.
"In February 2015, Nazario Quiñones signed an agreement to pay retroactive salaries with the wage and hour division of the US Department of Labor and, in this document, he agreed to pay salaries to all these employees for a total of $ 588,961.43," said the prosecutor.
Yauco municipal government issued the owed payments with municipal funds, but according to Rodriguez, at the same time, proceeded to freeze these employees regular salary informing them that the payments received, instead of being retroactive, were prospective. That is, a salary advance for the service to be provided.
This alleged irregular action was detected by auditors of the Office of the Comptroller of Puerto Rico (OCPR), who even received a complaint about the alleged agreement breach and referred the matter to the US Department of Labor. Comptroller Yesmín Valdivieso was at the press conference called yesterday by the prosecution.
"The municipality was withholding the employees regular salaries. This, without the knowledge or consent of the Department of Labor and in violation of the form signed by the mayor with the Department of Labor," said the head prosecutor, who added that the municipality of Yauco had until February this year to comply with the agreement stipulated with the Department of Labor.
Of the 39 accusations, 30 are related to the documents in which - allegedly in a false manner - the former mayor certified that salaries were paid late in compliance with the agreement. For that reason and for not complying with the laws and regulations of the Department of Labor, Nazario Quiñones is exposed to 20 years in prison, up to $ 1 million in fines and restitution to municipal employees.
"Between February 2015 and December 2016 the defendant falsely certified before the Department of Labor that he paid the owed wages to these employees and that he would not take any reprisals against the employees for accepting the payment, when, in fact, Nazario Quiñones ordered the payroll department to retain these employees future salaries for several variable periods despite the fact that these employees were still working in Yauco," explained Rodríguez.
The head of the federal prosecutor criminal division, José Capó, explained that the case against the former mayor is based on "a fraud to municipality employees. It is not a fraud to the Department of Labor."
The fraud is allegedly for forcing employees to work for free and the falsehood lies in lying in the information provided through a federal document in which it was stated that a retroactive wage payment was issued, Capó added.
According to the federal prosecutor, the current senator failed to protect the employees and executed a plan to defraud them.
"Abel Nazario Quiñones’ behavior undermined the trust that employees place in their employers. In fact, employers must protect and adequately represent their employees; Mr. Abel Nazario did not do so regarding these 177 employees," he added.
Labor lawyer Ruy Delgado Zayas, who headed the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources, explained to El Nuevo Día that, in effect, the Fair Labor Standards Act has a criminal nature provision, but it almost never applies.
"It is the first time, at least that I know, that this is used in Puerto Rico. In general, it is very unusual," said the labor expert.
The head of the prosecutors ruled that the action attributed to Nazario Quiñones is of administrative nature.
Rodriguez insisted that the former-mayor's performance put municipal employees in
precariousness who, in itself, received extremely low salaries. In addition, she noted that by certifying the presumably false use given to those funds in the forms, criminal intention was configured.
"They are humble people. They are contracted employees who wanted to have a job in the future," said the chief prosecutor explaining why the employees agreed to work without receiving payment. She did not say whether these employees would be part of the prosecution's witnesses.
Lawyer Joaquín Monserrate Matienzo, with extensive experience in criminal law, was surprised that this case would be prosecuted under criminal law rather than administrative.
"I think there must be logical and reasonable alternatives to avoid accusing people who may have committed an administrative error. Jails are not for that," said the lawyer.
"They say that he is a bad administrator, but being a bad administrator is a fault, it is not a crime," Matienzo added.
According to the federal prosecutor, the former mayor personally benefited from the non-payment to municipality employees, but did not explain how. Neither were charges related to illegal appropriation or illegal exploitation pressed.
Nazario Quiñones denied yesterday having committed crimes during his duties as municipal executive of Yauco.
The senator also clung to his seat, despite the resignation request made by the president of his party, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares.
However, Nazario Quiñones was relieved of his senatorial commissions and said that he would stay out of the PNP delegation.
"The senator must now use his time and capacity to face the federal accusations," advised the Governor.
Nazario Quiñones has been one of the most faithful allies of Rossello Nevares. From his beginnings in politics, Rosselló Nevares had the support of the Yauco´s former mayor, who was a vital figure in his primary elections campaign.
In fact, Yauco´s former mayor was emerging as Rosselló Nevares candidate to preside over the Senate. Although he did not achieve the presidency, Nazario Quiñones has been an essential figure in the promotion of La Fortaleza’s public policy.
In the year 2000, Nazario Quiñones won for the first time the election for mayor, which he consecutively won until 2016 when he withdrew from that elections and aspired to an at-large-seat in the Senate, which he obtained with 100,938 votes.
During the administration of Nazario Quiñones, Yauco, which in the 2010 Census reflected a 61.5 percent level of poverty, remained in a consistent budget deficit and a public debt that exceeded $ 38 million in 2016.
The OCPR audit report, where the unpaid work wage to contracted employees in Yauco was reported, also indicates that the municipality was dragging debts with the Department of Labor and Human Resources and with the Department of Treasury for withholding employees’ taxes.
Nazario Quiñones studied in the Inter american University, metropolitan campus, where he attained a master's degree.
Before becoming mayor he was legislative advisor. He maintained his residence in Yauco, in his parents’ home, until he was elected senator and began to divide his stay between San Juan and the municipality of Yauco.
Nazario Quiñones had one of the lowest salaries among all Puerto Rican mayors, $ 30,600, but he did not hide that his favorite entertainment was traveling all over the world.
In fact, he established a student travel program in his municipality that earned him concern from the Office of the Comptroller for the municipal investment that it entailed despite the budget deficit that the municipal administration dragged year after year.
Javier Colón Dávila collaborated with this story.
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