Thursday, September 24, 2020

Telecom Bureau chief faces criminal investigation

By on August 25, 2020

Sandra Torres, on right (Juan J. Rodríguez / CB)

Special prosecutors: Torres held campaign activities for former Gov. Rosselló during office hours 

SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor’s Panel (Opfei by its Spanish initials) announced Tuesday that it was starting a criminal investigation into allegations that Puerto Rico Telecommunications Bureau (NET by its Spanish initials) Chairwoman Sandra Torres López carried out campaign activities for former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló during office hours. 

The Opfei investigation will also target Katherine Erazo García, president of BCS Consulting Services and a former advisor to Torres between 2017 and 2019, for her role in the alleged violations committed by the NET chair.  

Opfei said in a press release that it decided to investigate Torres’ alleged actions after reviewing a preliminary investigation on the matter submitted by Acting Justice Secretary Inés del C. Carrau Martinez, and which was signed by district attorney Phoebe Isales Forsythe, director of the agency’s Comptroller’s Affairs and Public Integrity Division, and assistant prosecutor Teresita del Rosario Morales Arteaga. 

The panel appointed attorney Ramón Mendoza Rosario to be the special independent prosecutor and attorney Miguel A. Colón Ortiz to be the delegated prosecutor in the case. Both prosecutors have 90 days to complete the investigation and issue recommendations on whether or not criminal and ethics charges should be filed against Torres. 

According to Opfei, the Justice Department’s preliminary investigation states that Torres allegedly requested during office hours that a former employee, identified as Exel López Vélez, organize an event within the agency to raise funds for the reelection of Rosselló, who resigned in July of last year amid mounting massive protests over alleged acts of corruption in his administration and his participation in an offensive Telegram chat. 

Torres allegedly instructed López to sell tickets for the fundraising event to trust employees at NET, telecommunication companies regulated by NET, and to contractors of the telecommunications regulator, according to the preliminary investigation as cited by Opfei, which states that López Vélez proceeded to contact these officials and contractors for that purpose. 

Opfei said that the Justice Department preliminary probe includes “evidence to prove the reported facts,” including a sworn statement presented by López to the agency. López testified that he had filed complaints on the matter before the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, the office of the Governor’s Chief of Staff, the Government Ethics Office and the FBI, according to Opfei. 

While the panel resolution states that López could be eligible for immunity due to his role as whistleblower in the case, it clarifies that such legal protection would not necessarily cover “all of his actions and violations that involve him as an official,” adding that Opfei will determine the extent of such immunity as well as the possible filing of charges against him. 

According to Opfei, López testified that Erazo told him as well as Torres at the then Puerto Rico Telecommunications Board office that Rosselló had ordered each commonwealth agency to organize fundraising events for his reelection campaign. Torres allegedly responded that her agency would cooperate with the campaign fundraising, according to the Justice Department preliminary investigation, which also contains other allegations that both Torres and Erazo carried out business related to Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (NPP) during work hours. 

Erazo is the mother-in-law of attorney Elías Sánchez Sifonte, Rosselló’s former campaign manager, who faces federal and local criminal investigations for alleged influence peddling involving his role as government lobbyist under the former governor. Sánchez is also the target of a commonwealth probe into his role as one of the participants of the infamous Telegram chat thread leaked during July of 2019, which shows administration officials discussing privileged government business with him.  

Erazo currently has consulting contracts with the Puerto Rico Economic Development & Commerce Department (DDEC) and the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. 

The Opfei resolution also points out “other irregularities attributable to Torres” that may also constitute violations to the law, among these “the use of [NET’s] official vehicle and driver to attend meetings of a partisan nature” as well as “other actions related to the purchase and payment of services.” 

The panel concluded that the Justice Department had uncovered enough evidence to merit a further investigation into possible criminal acts committed by the targets of the NET investigation, including violations to the Puerto Rico Penal Code of 2012 as well as several provisions of the Government Ethics Act. 

Ethics complaint against Torres before Supreme Court 

In October of last year, López filed an ethics complaint against Torres before the island’s Supreme Court for allegedly violating the Anti-Corruption Code by requesting that an employee sell tickets for a fundraising event during work hours.  

Torres has denied the allegations against her. She could not be reached on Tuesday for comment. 

In the complaint before the island’s top court, López alleged that in an office meeting with Torres, she “entrusted” him with a list of telecommunications companies and their contact information for the former to sell them a $1,500 per person ticket for a June 7, 2018, event at the Los Arboles Urbanization in Montehiedra, in 416 Boulevard St. 

“I proceeded to call Ms. Torres López and indicated that I could not help her with the assignment since I understood it improper to request money from entities regulated by the agency. She replied that I had a [politically appointed] position of trust, which was the reason she had brought me to work with her. The next day, [Torres López] called me to her office and repeated that I had to collaborate because otherwise she would have to do without my services,” the sworn document states. 

The former employee said that he went to the headquarters of Claro and AT&T, among other companies regulated by NET, to deliver the tickets and that, once he delivered the tickets to the aforementioned companies, they returned them and refused to buy them. 

“I proceeded to go to the office of the chairwoman and I notified her that I did not wish to continue these unofficial efforts and that both companies had declined to participate and I had also gone through a hard time with the tickets being returned. She got upset and called the president of Claro of Puerto Rico, Mr. Enrique Ortiz de Montellano, on her cellphone and told him that this was an activity of the governor and that she had to provide the tickets. Exactly the same happened with Mr. Flores from AT&T. Through contractors, she managed to sell enough tickets. But mostly they were [sold] to regulated [companies] that appear in the annex and will be part of the evidence,” the affidavit says. 

In addition, the sworn statement establishes that several of NET’s contractors participated in the Rosselló fundraiser, such as Perfect Cleaning, Aireko, legal adviser Miriam Toledo, legislative affairs adviser Eduardo “Tito” Laureano and administrative services contractor Carmen Carro. 

“In my understanding, the acts of the lawyer and former judge Sandra E. Torres López, of power and influence, are an intentional misuse of the prominence of her position to advance her personal interests and an attempt to gain illegitimate advantage potentially through trading in influence among other possible crimes and violations of the Code of Ethics of Lawyers,” points out the former employee. 

In the same television program in which López originally made his allegations against his former boss in October, Torres soon thereafter questioned the credibility of her former employee. 

“It is totally false. That is a list that I have in my office that was used two days before Hurricane Maria,” she said on the program hosted by a local commentator on Oct. 29. “I am very respectful of the canons of ethics; I was a judge and I have been in practice for 40 years and it is the first time in my life that I find myself in a situation like this. This gentleman had an attendance problem and was going to be dismissed. He then committed acts that are under investigation by the Puerto Rico Police. This person was going to be fired. The allegations are completely false.”