US District Attorney for PR: ‘The corruption scheme repeats itself’
Federal charges issued against NPP Rep. Nelson del Valle, at least 2 others
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
Conspiracy, federal funds theft, bribery, kickbacks, honest services wire fraud and obstruction of justice were the charges that a federal grand jury brought earlier this week against New Progressive Party (NPP) Rep. Nelson del Valle Colón, Mildred Estrada Rojas and her daughter Nickolle Santos Estrada, according to a U.S. District Court indictment released on Thursday.
As del Valle Colón, Estrada Rojas and Santos Estrada were arrested by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents early Thursday morning and around 25 federal agents searched the legislator’s office in the municipality of Toa Alta, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico Stephen Muldrow said a scheme similar to the one allegedly concocted by NPP Rep. María Milagros Charbonier was devised by del Valle Colón, who hired Estrada Rojas as his office director in January 2017 and her daughter as a director under a House committee on which he served. In February 2017, Estrada Rojas’ biweekly salary was inflated from $2,200 to $3,500, while Santos Estrada was paid $2,000 biweekly from the start. Muldrow said the legislator collected around $100,000 from the scheme until this past July as Estrada Rojas, Santos Estrada and an unidentified defendant paid him from $500 to $2,000 every two weeks.
“The corruption scheme repeats itself,” Muldrow said. “At the beginning of 2017, del Valle Colón inflated both his employees’ salaries -- Santos Estrada, Estrada Rojas -- and [that of] another individual, who is Person A in the accusation. They agreed to keep a part of each check from their inflated salaries, and would pay an illegal commission to the legislator.”
Muldrow said the lawmaker, by way of the conspiracy, was “getting rich knowingly, embezzling, robbing, obtaining without authority and converting the fraudulently inflated portion of his employees’ salaries for his own use and hiding his corrupt scheme from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, its citizens, and the federal government.”
He added that the methods used by Estrada Rojas, Santos Estrada, and a third subject in the kickback scheme were cash transactions to prevent banking records while, sometimes, up to $500 using mobile phone app ATH Móvil was transferred to del Valle Colón.
As for the honest services wire fraud charge, Muldrow said it was based on text messages sent among the defendants to devise the scheme, while the obstruction of justice charge against del Valle Colón was due to the legislator deleting such messages between himself and the defendants from WhatsApp.
“On July 27, when federal authorities obtained the legislator’s cellphone, the WhatsApp messages between del Valle Colón, Santos Estrada and Estrada Rojas were not there anymore, they were deleted,” Muldrow said. “If they are found guilty, the defendants will face a maximum five-year jail sentence for conspiracy, 10 years for theft and bribery [involving] the federal program, and 20 years for each charge of honest services wire fraud and obstruction of justice.”
House speaker: Not all alleged targets ‘are from the NPP’
Earlier on Thursday, Speaker of the House of Representatives Carlos “Johnny” Méndez Núñez said in a WKAQ radio interview that once the accusations were confirmed, del Valle Colón had to give up his seat in the lower chamber immediately.
“He must submit his resignation immediately. There is no room for this. That was one of the investigations that the House was cooperating with, for which we submitted information to the FBI, and it is one of the many things that I can not talk about at this moment,” Méndez said. “We are cooperating with some investigations. Information about legislators, non-legislators, employees, former legislators were requested and the House is cooperating.”
When asked if the other supposed targets were affiliated with the NPP, Méndez replied that “not all of them are from the NPP.”