Puerto Rico Senator Is Arrested in Corruption Case
Federal prosecutors said that when he was a mayor, Senator Abel Nazario and two aides illegally used tax money to pay five campaign workers.
MIAMI — The federal authorities in Puerto Rico arrested Senator Abel Nazario Quiñones and seven other people on Wednesday, accusing them of theft or bribery during Mr. Nazario’s time as mayor of the town of Yauco. It was Mr. Nazario’s second corruption-related arrest in 14 months.
The Justice Department accused Mr. Nazario and two former aides of illegally using municipal funds to pay five people who actually worked for Mr. Nazario’s Senate campaign and not for the town. The five people — known in Puerto Rico as “ghost” employees — were also paid to campaign for other candidates whose support Mr. Nazario hoped to gain for a bid to become the next president of Puerto Rico’s Senate, according to the indictment.
Mr. Nazario is a member of the island’s governing party, the New Progressive Party, which supports statehood for Puerto Rico. He was elected to a four-year Senate term in 2016 after serving as mayor of Yauco, in the island’s southwest, for 16 years. His arrest was first reported by The Associated Press.
Mr. Nazario denied the charges on Wednesday, telling reporters outside the federal courthouse in the Hato Rey neighborhood of San Juan that the accusations were “totally false.”
Widespread popular anger over political corruption has become a potent force in Puerto Rico. Immense protests over the summer, fueled in part by anger over the July arrests of two former senior officials, forced the resignation of Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló, also a New Progressive.
On Wednesday, Thomas Rivera Schatz, the current Senate president and head of the New Progressive Party, called on Mr. Nazario to resign.
“It’s unfortunate for him and his family, but even more so for the people of Puerto Rico, who watch with anguish events that lacerate the trust in government institutions,” Mr. Rivera Schatz said in a statement posted on Facebook.
Mr. Nazario said on Wednesday that he would not step down. “I am innocent,” he said outside the courthouse. “The innocent don’t resign.”
The Senate was involved in its own scandal this year related to “ghost” employees. In May, federal authorities arrested the executive director of the Senate Office of Government Affairs and two other people on fraud charges. They were accused of being part of a scheme to obtain government contracts for work that they did not complete or performed improperly, and to submit and approve bills based on falsified time records and other documentation.
The others arrested on Wednesday were Edwin Torres Gutiérrez, who was a special assistant to Mr. Nazario when he was mayor; Claribel Rodríguez Canchani, who was the town’s human resources director; Humberto Pagán Sánchez; Kelvin Ortiz Vegarra; Ramón Martes Negrón; Juan Rosario Núñez; and Eric Rondón Rodríguez. Video broadcast on a local television news station showed several of the men arriving at the federal courthouse in San Juan in handcuffs.
The investigation began after a routine audit of the town’s records by the Puerto Rico Comptroller’s Office in August 2016 found employees who were showing up for work only sporadically or not at all.
According to the authorities, Mr. Torres had instructed the five irregular employees to report to the town hall either once a week or once a month. When he learned that Yauco was under investigation, Mr. Torres told them to start appearing twice as often, the authorities said, adding that when the irregular employees did come in, it was to collect paychecks and attend meetings with Mr. Nazario and Mr. Torres about Mr. Nazario’s campaign, not to do any municipal work.
The five employees submitted timecards with their work hours left blank, and Mr. Nazario ordered his aides to process them and approve payments based on “false or no documentation,” federal prosecutors said.
“This prosecution serves as a warning to other public officials involved in these types of schemes that they will be punished, and as a promise to taxpayers that such violations of the public trust will not be tolerated,” W. Stephen Muldrow, the United States attorney for Puerto Rico, said in a statement. The Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General was also involved in the investigation.
Mr. Nazario was previously arrested in September 2018, when he was vice president of the New Progressive Party. Federal authorities accused him of defrauding employees by requiring them to work two “voluntary” hours a day without pay, in violation of Labor Department regulations. Mr. Nazario initially agreed to pay nearly $589,000 in back wages to 177 employees, but he later withheld the money, the authorities said, leading to his arrest. He denies the charges and is awaiting trial in that case.