Puerto Rico Lawmaker and Family Charged in Corruption Case

A volunteer scans a voter’s hands before he casts his ballot in Loíza, Puerto Rico, on Sunday. (AP Photo/Dánica Coto)

(CN) — FBI agents on Monday arrested Puerto Rico Representative María Milagros Charbonier along with her assistant, husband and son in a public corruption case accusing them of theft, bribery and kickbacks.

According to Puerto Rico U.S. Attorney Stephen Muldrow, Charbonier allegedly benefited from kickbacks and bribes amounting to $100,000 after repeatedly giving her assistant, Frances Acevedo-Ceballos, significant raises from 2017 to 2020.

An indictment dated Aug. 7 but made public Monday includes charges of conspiracy, theft of federal funds, fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Joining Charbonier and Acevedo-Ceballos as defendants are her husband Orlando Montes-Rivera and son Orlando Gabriel Montes-Charbonier.

“Out of every inflated paycheck, it was agreed that Acevedo would keep a portion, and kick back between $1,000 and $1,500 to Charbonier, Montes, and Montes-Charbonier,” the U.S. Justice Department said in a release on Monday. 

Puerto Rico Rep. María Milagros Charbonier. (Photo via Puerto Rico House of Representatives)

Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt referred to Charbonier’s alleged actions as a “brazen scheme to defraud the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”

“I encourage those who have information of public officials involved in criminal acts to come forward,” U.S. Attorney Muldrow added. “We will continue investigating and prosecuting elected officials whose criminal conduct enriches themselves at the expense of the government and their constituents.”

Charbonier, who once presided over Puerto Rico House of Representative’s Ethics Committee, is accused of obstructing justice by wiping relevant data from her cellphone, including messages on the WhatsApp messaging service. 

The indictment accuses Acevedo of transferring some kickbacks in roughly $500 increments to Charbonier’s family through a mobile phone app and, at other times, directly leaving cash for his former boss in her purse or other predetermined locations. 

The lawmaker and her family are accused of using secretive maneuvers to transfer the funds between themselves as a way to conceal the location, source and ownership of the money.

Charbonier has pleaded not guilty to all charges and bail was set at $25,000. A spokesperson for the legislator could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

“Most of the work we do takes place behind the scenes. Quality investigative work requires time and patience,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Rafael Riviere Vázquez, located in the agency’s San Juan field office. “It is my hope that the people of Puerto Rico never doubt that we are doing the work that we have been entrusted to do. Public corruption is FBI San Juan’s priority and it will continue to be a priority. Puerto Rico belongs to each and every one of us, and together we can take it back.”

The indictment is being prosecuted by trial attorney Jonathan E. Jacobson of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney María L. Montañez Concepción from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Puerto Rico.

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