Federal authorities arrested and charged the mayor of the Puerto Rican city of Guaynabo with accepting payoffs, amid a public corruption crackdown that has resulted in the arrest of multiple public officials and contractors in recent weeks.
“The mayor of Guaynabo, who was entrusted by his constituents with the best interests of the people, allegedly took part in an illegal scheme using his position for personal gain,” said the U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico, Stephen Muldrow, at a press conference on Thursday morning.
Ángel Pérez Otero — who was first elected Guaynabo’s mayor in 2017, and whose predecessor recently admitted guilt in a sexual harassment and gender violence case — is facing three federal charges of conspiracy, federal program bribery and extortion. Videos of the arrest, carried out before the sun rose Thursday, show Pérez-Otero being taken into FBI custody amid flashing car lights.
The indictment says the mayor accepted bribes and kickbacks between 2019 and 2021 from a currently unidentified individual in exchange for municipal contracts. Pérez-Otero, federal authorities say, influenced and pressured Guaynabo officers to give contracts to the company of the unnamed person, from whom he received regular cash sums of $5,000.
At the press conference, Murdrow said that Pérez-Otero could face several prison sentences, including 20 years on the extortion charge. He added that the company involved in the criminal complaint offered construction services.
The FBI also arrested Radames Benítez Cardona, a longtime assistant of the mayor of the town of Trujillo Alto, on Thursday morning. In exchange for public contracts, Benítez Cardona allegedly received bribes and kickbacks from two unidentified people in exchange for a waste management services municipal contract. Benítez Cardona could have received as much as a monthly sum of about $17,000 and an advance payment of $200,000, said federal authorities.
Joseph González, Puerto Rico’s FBI chief, emphasized at the conference that fighting corruption was a priority for his office.
“We continue cleaning the house,” he said. “This is only the beginning. Our work is not done.”
Luisa Colom García, vice mayor of Guaynabo, a municipality of about 83,000 in San Juan’s metropolitan area, said in a written statement she would take over municipal operations following the arrest of Pérez Otero.
Pérez Otero, along with Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, belongs to the New Progressive Party (PNP for its Spanish acronym), which endorses statehood for Puerto Rico. Pierluisi said in a written statement that he felt “disappointed and extremely upset” in light of news of Pérez Otero’s arrest.
“There are no ties or friendships that withstand a federal corruption indictment,” said the governor.
He called for Pérez-Otero to resign from the mayor’s job and the presidency of the Federation of Mayors, as well as leadership in the political party. Meanwhile, the island’s special independent prosecutor panel said in a press release on Thursday that it had suspended Pérez Otero from office.
Pierluisi offered a stern message to the island’s public officials.
“I warn [anyone] who has committed an act like this, or who is even considering it, that I will not rest until everyone is out of the government and my party,” he said.
It is the second time in less than a month that Pierluisi has had to issue such a statement following a federal corruption accusation of a member of his own party.
In late November, federal authorities arrested the mayor of the coastal municipality of Cataño, Félix Delgado Montalvo. He was charged with accepting kickbacks and bribes, including cash payments and expensive watches, for multimillion-dollar municipal contracts.
Delgado Montalvo resigned from his post, and on Dec. 2 the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that Delgado admitted guilt to a bribery conspiracy charge as part of a plea agreement. He could spend a maximum of five years in prison, and will be sentenced on March 2022.
Public officials from both of the island’s main political parties have been arrested, charged and convicted of public corruption in recent years. In August 2020, PNP representative María Milagros Charbonier-Laureano was accused of theft, bribery, and fraud by federal authorities. In July, the former Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, who served for ousted Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy.
Diego Alcala, a criminal defense attorney who practices in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, said the processing and prosecution of corruption cases in Puerto Rico at the state and federal level is low in comparison to the totality of the cases charged, despite public perception that it is a widespread occurrence. Bribery and corruption cases in 2020 made up .4% of federal offenders at the national level, compared to .2% of federal offenders in Puerto Rico, according to a United States Sentencing Commission report.
However, Alcala told the Miami Herald that the low frequency of cases seen in both jurisdictions doesn’t mean that the crimes aren’t occurring, and that the recent high-profile cases could indicate that authorities are investing more resources into combating white-collar crimes on the island.
Meanwhile, Delgado thanked the town of Cataño for allowing him to serve as its town mayor on his Facebook page and offered residents apologies for the “hard time.”
“Many times power blinds you and I’m sure it happened to me,” he wrote.
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