Puerto Rico sues former officials accused of corruption to recover more than $30M in public funds

Puerto Rico’s Justice Department says it is suing at least 30 ex-government officials accused of corruption to recover more than $30 million in public funds

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s Justice Department announced Tuesday it is suing at least 30 former government officials accused of corruption to recover more than $30 million in public funds.

Among those sued are three former legislators, including María Milagros Charbonier, who was sentenced in May to eight years in federal prison after being found guilty of theft, bribery and a kickback scheme.

“We are going to recover the Puerto Rican people’s money and claim an amount that totals three times the damage caused by those who have illegally appropriated public funds," said Domingo Emanuelli, the U.S. territory’s justice secretary.

Also sued are eight former mayors including Félix Delgado of Cataño and Ángel Pérez of Guaynabo. Delgado was sentenced to one year in federal prison in March after pleading guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for awarding millions of dollars’ worth of municipal contracts. Pérez was sentenced to more than five years in federal prison in February after being found guilty of bribery and extorsion.

Their attorneys could not be immediately reached for comment.

Puerto Rico’s Justice Department had long been accused of not cracking down sufficiently on widespread government corruption on the island, with federal authorities taking the reins in recent years.

“For the first time on the island, the Puerto Rican Justice Department sued more than 30 convicts for corruption with the purpose of recovering public funds and demanding reparation for the damages they caused to the Puerto Rican people," Emanuelli said.

The department also sued two companies, J.R. Asphalt Inc. and Waste Collection Corp. Federal authorities have previously accused them of being linked to government corruption cases.

The Department of Justice stated that according to the civil procedural rules of the U.S. territory, it could implement provisional measures to recover assets and restrict the defendants’ ability to sell property.

The largest lawsuit involves a group of seven people accused of wire fraud and money laundering in Mayaguez, totaling $21.6 million, according to the breakdown of lawsuits by the Department of Justice. Radamés Benítez, former executive assistant to the former mayor of Trujillo Alto, is facing a lawsuit seeking just under $3.1 million, while Delgado has been sued for nearly $1.2 million.

Several mayors have been arrested by the FBI over alleged corruption since the 2020 elections, with other facing local charges. Other high-profile arrests, unrelated to Tuesday's lawsuits include former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vazquez Garced, who was arrested in 2022 for allegedly bribing several people to finance her 2020 gubernatorial election campaign.

Last year, the former mayor of Trujillo Alto, José Luis Cruz Cruz, and Abel Nazario, former senator and former mayor of Yauco, were sentenced to prison after engaging in a bribery scheme and misappropriating municipal funds, respectively. In 2022, former mayors of Aguas Buenas and Humacao, Javier García and Reinaldo Vargas, were arrested on charges of conspiracy, soliciting bribes and extortion.

In 2021, a day after Delgado pleaded guilty to bribery, businessman Mario Villegas was indicted for allegedly paying kickbacks to Delgado, collecting over $9.9 million in municipal contracts for his asphalt and paving company. Villegas was sentenced to over three years in prison.