“I’d say you wouldn’t like to be in those people’s shoes.”
This how Harry Anduze, a veteran lawyer, describes the seriousness of the accusations and sentences that Ángel Figueroa Cruz, Isoel Sánchez Santiago, and Crystal Robles Báez -arrested for allegedly committing fraud from the Senate Office of Governmental Affairs- may face.
El Nuevo Día interviewed several criminal lawyers on the content of the May 30 indictment and they all reached the same conclusion.
“These are very serious, really serious crimes. It’s conducting a scheme to defraud by a state official, in this case, Puerto Rico,” said Ignacio Rivera, an experienced attorney.
A federal grand jury returned an 18-count indictment charging three individuals with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, 10 substantive counts of wire fraud, intentional misapplication of property by an agent of an organization receiving federal funds, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering, as Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico, announced on Thursday.
“Simple conspiracy carries a sentence of five years (in jail), and the rest (of the crimes), 20 years while aggravated identity theft can be up 40 years, fines of $500,000,” explained Anduze.
The indictment details the process to create and contract Global Instant Consulting Group, whose president is Robles Báez.
Also according to the indictment, the three defendants, who are members of the New Progressive Party, “participated in lawful electoral campaign activities for candidates to elected offices during the 2016 Puerto Rico general elections,” with the purpose to obtain a job or government contracts.
“‘The winner takes all’ and you can see that in Puerto Rico all the time. The one who wins the elections, whether blue or red, hires friends to favor them with contracts,” Rivera described, as a recurring problem in major parties
The document points out that the contacts made by Sánchez Santiago were essential for Global to obtain two contracts in the Senate totaling $60,000.
The indictment also reveals that Sánchez Santiago and Robles Báez allegedly counted on Figueroa Cruz to certify as completed the services that Global was charging for when actually the service detailed in the bill was not completed or provided.
“He was the gatekeeper, the gate through which contracts entered and he was the one who approved the reports that these people prepared. That’s why he is also involved,” Anduze analyzed. “Without that, they can’t pay, they can’t prepare the check,” he added.
Similarly, in order to justify the service allegedly not completed, “they started (Sánchez Santiago and Robles Báez) preparing false reports and steal people’s identities,” Anduze explained about the details in the indictment.
“This indictment proves the work of legal analysis that the prosecution has been doing in terms of what this situation entails,” noted the lawyer.
Global was awarded the contract with the Senate 18 days after registering with the State Department.
The agreement with the Senate was signed by Chief of Staff Gabriel Hernández Rodríguez, who was commissioned by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz to endorse the contracts of that body.
The indictment identifies the Senate chief of staff by his initials G.H.R.
Yesterday, the Senate ignored once again El Nuevo Dia’s request to examine to or provide a copy of Global’s professional services proposal. Nor has that body produced the professional credentials that led Robles Baez to reach legislative advisory functions.
This ex-contractor was tasked with preparing legislation commissioned by the Senate president, the analysis of bills, preparing interrogations and representing Rivera Schatz in legislative activities. The company also had to visit communities to discuss community problems that required direct action by the Senator, including legislation or allocation of funds.
As revealed both by the Senate president and an investigation by this newspaper published last year, the responsibilities of several contractors of the Office of Governmental Affairs were adjusted to providing particular services after Hurricane María.
“Under this contract, this lady (Robles Báez) became a person designated to carry out the public duties of the president of the Senate,” said Anduze.
According to Sen. Miguel Pereira, who was formerly a federal attorney, in order to prove these crimes, the attorney’s office has to follow the money.
“In order to prove them (the accusations) someone should trace the transactions required to move the money,” he said.
The indictment contains a breakdown of the bills and money received by Global, as well as transfers of funds between the company’s accounts and Sánchez Santiago’s accounts.
Delegation of duties
Commissioning contractors for legislative duties has grown in the last decades in both chambers, said former lawmakers Angel Rosa and Víctor García San Inocencio.
“More than a service, this type of contract is really a political gift,” Rosa said. “In other words, these are people who get involved in legislative leaders political campaigns, who are politically useful during the election and primaries, and they are compensated through their participation in the public payroll,” she said.
The former Popular senator added that there are political activists who are not interested in obtaining a salary compensation – which is usually small - and seek service contracts in the legislative bodies.
“They have invented this scheme of contracts where they multiply the opportunities to work in multiple offices, to provide services that no one supervises,” said Rosa, who is a Political Science professor.
He thinks there is an “understanding” that in the Legislature the public payroll should finance the political careers of legislative leaders.
“That’s how it’s been for decades, and that’s how it is now,” Rosa said.
The former senator described the defendants as acquaintances, political collaborators and “acolytes” of the Senate president.
“Because he is the person who authorizes and orders that hiring, these people arrive there with the expectation that they won’t even provide a real service to the state,” Rosa said.
The former Popular senator said that due to the tasks contractually agreed with Global, the least that should be expected was that Rivera Schatz will entrust him with the drafting of some specific bill or legislative assignments.
“The Senate president said yesterday that he does not even control those contracts whose main beneficiary is precisely him,” said Rosa.
Meanwhile, for García San Inocencio what has happened in recent years is that the legislative role has been privatized.
“It has become an exercise carried out by the private sector through a strictly business logic and that is a pattern,” the former Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) legislator complained.
In the opinion of the also Ph.D. in administrative law, Puerto Rican legislation is less and less the real product of the Legislative branch.
San Inocencio said that hiring legislative service should be the exception and not the rule.
The former representative said that for years the Legislative Assembly has refused to carry out a true reclassification of positions and salaries.
“There has to be a return to the institutionalization of the legislative official and a merit system has to be implemented in the Legislative Assembly, where they recruit people for their skills and preparation,” he insisted.