NPP Rep. Charbonier received $100,000 from kickback scheme, according to federal indictment
Conservative legislator who once chaired House Ethics Committee allegedly tried to hide evidence by deleting messages, call logs
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
A federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico on Monday pressed 13 charges against New Progressive Party (NPP) Rep. María Milagros Charbonier Laureano, her husband Orlando Montes, her son Orlando Gabriel Montes Charbonier and her assistant Frances Acevedo Ceballos for alleged involvement in conspiracy; theft, bribery, and kickbacks concerning programs receiving federal funds; and honest services wire fraud.
As they were arrested by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents on Monday morning, an indictment handed down by the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico on Aug. 7 indicated that, since early 2017, Charbonier Laureano designed a scheme in which she inflated Acevedo Ceballos’ salary from $800 to $2,100 biweekly, which later increased to $2,900 in September 2019, in exchange for valuable items that were “requested and approved in a corrupt manner.” According to U.S. District Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico Stephen Muldrow, from each inflated check Acevedo Ceballos received from Charbonier Laureano, the assistant agreed to keep part of it while she paid from $1,000 to $1,500 to Charbonier Laureano’s family. Furthermore, the district attorney said that, until July of this year, the NPP lawmaker stole at least $100,000 through the illicit venture.
“The defendants used a variety of means to transfer the kickbacks from Acevedo to Charbonier and her family, including the following: Acevedo Ceballos gave the money in cash to Montes, Montes Charbonier and other people involved with Charbonier; sometimes, she transferred the kickbacks in $500 increments to Montes or to Montes Charbonier using [mobile phone app] ATH Móvil,” Muldrow said. “Sometimes, Acevedo left cash kickbacks in a determined place such as Charbonier’s purse or in a car glove compartment for Charbonier to collect.”
Muldrow said further that Charbonier and her family deleted call logs, text messages, and WhatsApp messages from their phones after they allegedly knew that the FBI had them under investigation, even though the lawmaker told members of the press that she was not. When asked if the arrests were put on hold due to the just-completed primary elections, in which Charbonier placed last after receiving the fewest votes in the NPP representatives-at-large contest, Muldrow said that in no way was the timing of her arrest meant to influence the results of the electoral event held over the past two Sundays.
“I want to be clear on this: we have not done anything to influence the [primary] elections incorrectly,” Muldrow said. “Without a doubt, we have to make the cases when they are ready to charge. We are very clear about that.”
“We have taken caution, in this case, to wait for the primaries [to end],” he added. “But the truth is that we have to do our job; that is why we waited to arrest her today [Monday].”
House speaker requests Charbonier’s resignation
House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez Nuñez, meanwhile, through written declarations requested Charbonier Laureano’s resignation amid the accusations. Méndez said that, as a precautionary measure, he “made the choice to separate the Representative from the Legal Committee leadership.”
“Although I recognize that the Representative has the right to the presumption of innocence until it is proven otherwise in a court of law, I am requesting her immediate resignation from the seat [committee chairwoman] she was elected to in 2016,” Méndez said.
During the day, Charbonier pleaded “not guilty” before Judge Bruce McGiverin to all charges related to the $100,000 kickback scheme. Bail was set at $25,000.