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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Charbonier invokes mercy of God after accepting jury’s guilty verdict

Former Rep. María Milagros Charbonier Laureano

By The Star Staff

Former New Progressive Party lawmaker María Milagros Charbonier Laureano said that she must accept and respect a jury verdict finding her and her husband, Orlando Montes, guilty of corruption.

She made the remarks via social media over the weekend.

Late last week, a federal jury convicted Charbonier and her husband for engaging in a years-long theft, bribery and kickback scheme after inflating the salary of a legislative assistant in exchange for a portion of the assistant’s inflated salary.

“The process and its result have been what they have been, and we must accept and respect it. Democracy allows the citizen the opportunity to work on other processes, and we had already made that decision beforehand,” she said in an apparent reference to an appeal, a step that her lawyer Francisco Rebollo Casalduc announced he would take.

“But today I thank all the friends and brothers who accompanied me throughout the process and had our entire family in their prayers,” Charbonier continued. “The word of God is so beautiful that it constantly invites us to ‘cross the valley of tears’ and change it into a source. That’s what we did, and we will continue to do. Even before yesterday, God has worked many miracles in our lives and our family. That’s how God is; he does not abandon his children, which is the greatest of all miracles. We are convinced that he will never do it. No circumstance, no matter how terrible, can separate us from the love of God. That love and that ineffable peace is our eternal refuge. In the end, his purpose will always be fulfilled in our lives because God is good, and his mercy endures forever.”

According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, from early 2017 until July 2020, Charbonier, also known as “Tata,” a former member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, along with her husband, Orlando Montes, and her assistant, Frances Acevedo Ceballos, executed a scheme to defraud the government by engaging in a theft, bribery, and kickback scheme. Throughout the scheme, Charbonier inflated Acevedo Ceballos’ salary from $800 biweekly, after taxes, to nearly $2,900. Out of every inflated paycheck, Acevedo would keep a portion and kick back between $1,000 and $1,500 to Charbonier and Montes Rivera.

After learning of the investigation into illegal activities in her office and of a warrant for one of her phones, Charbonier proceeded to delete specific data on the phone, including the entire call log, nearly all WhatsApp messages, and nearly all messages associated with the phone.

The jury convicted Charbonier and Montes of one count of conspiracy, two counts of theft, bribery and kickbacks concerning programs receiving federal funds, six counts of honest services wire fraud, and two counts of money laundering. The jury also convicted Charbonier of obstruction of justice for destroying data on her cell phone.

Charbonier’s attorney vowed to appeal the verdict.

“All the citizens of this island have the fundamental right to exercise their right to trial by jury and to require the government, when they are accused of an act against them, to prove them if they can,” Rebollo Casalduc said. “That right is fundamental and it does not have to be justified or explained to anyone, the lawyer exercised it gallantly here, my respect and admiration for her, and her family, who are not like those who give in to these unfounded allegations. We, if you saw, presented a defense yesterday, which was a strong defense. The jury, in our judgment, was wrong; that is their prerogative and we respect it, but we do not agree.”

For his part, U.S. Attorney Seth Erbe, supervisor of the Public Corruption and White Collar Division of the District of Puerto Rico, said: “On behalf of the Puerto Rico Prosecutor’s Office, we want to say that we are very grateful for the work of the jury today. Obviously, also to the work of the FBI agents here in Puerto Rico, of the prosecutors here in San Juan and also of the Public Integrity office in Washington D.C., who are part of the team that today delivered this message to all the official members of Puerto Rico and to the people of the island that no one, no one is above the law.”

Questioned about if he’s prepared for an appeal by the defense, Erbe said: “Obviously this is part of the process.”

“A sentencing hearing follows, we’re going to prepare for that,” he said. “That’s in April and then, they have the right to appeal and we’re going to fight, as long as there is evidence like in this case.”

The special agent in charge of the FBI in San Juan, Joseph González, noted: “This is another example of dedication to the people of Puerto Rico. We’re going to keep investigating.”

In all, the Attorney General’s Office called 15 witnesses during the 10-day trial, including legislative staffers, the Treasury secretary, members of the Office of Government Ethics, bank personnel and several agents from the FBI and other agencies involved in the investigation.

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