The plea agreement by Joseph ‘Joey’ Fuentes Fernández, Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s friend, for setting up a scheme to conceal the identity of the donors of the Super Political Action Committee Salvemos a Puerto Rico through the creation of shell corporations Fundación Pro Igualdad Inc., and Foundation for Progress, anticipate other possible convictions of donors and coordinators mentioned in the case documents, several attorneys familiar with electoral law agreed.
The timeline of the facts, the identification of other people in the case’s official documents and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office’s report that they have text messages between Fuentes Fernández and other participants, are an invitation to those who donated violating the limits to the officers of the phantom organizations and other participants in the Salvemos a Puerto Rico scheme to cooperate with the authorities, said Héctor Luis Acevedo, professor of Political Science, Electoral and Constitutional Law.
He believes that the Federal Prosecutor’s Office’s strategy of filing first against Fuentes Fernández, who managed the Super PAC, getting him to plead guilty with a relatively kind treatment, sends the message to others that they will not be treated well if they do not cooperate. This includes Individual 1, an associate of the then gubernatorial candidate who is described as “a significant fundraiser” seeking donations in support of his 2020 election campaign.
The official documents of the case mention that this Pierluisi associate exchanged text messages, emails, and other digital messaging applications between Fuentes and Individual 2, who was the secretary of the ghost foundations, in which they discussed aspects of his scheme to avoid reporting to the real donors. Official case documents also mention Individual 3, a potential donor described as an “attorney and consultant.” The only person who appears as the incorporator of both entities is the former Ports Authority Executive Director Álvaro Pilar, who did not respond to a request for an interview from the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish).
“Due to the ongoing criminal investigation, none of the people related to the corporations are granting interviews,” replied Atty. Frank Torres Viada, legal representative of Fundación Por la Igualdad Inc., and Foundation for Progress Inc.
“The message from the Prosecutor’s Office is aimed at possible witnesses or possible future defendants. It’s like telling them: ‘Look what I got.’ In that document, there are two or three accusations that are obvious. Fuentes didn’t act alone. What they’re doing is giving time to see who will be the first to cooperate because donors to fictitious organizations also knowingly committed a crime and what they’re looking for is more information,” Acevedo said, referring to the detailed description made in the federal prosecutor’s office document of Individual 1 and Individual 2 and of their participation with Fuentes Fernández in the scheme.
He argued that cases of illegality in political donations are very complicated for prosecutors to prove due to the broad right the US Supreme Court grants via jurisprudence from the case that allows the creation of Political Action Committees (PAC), (Buckley v. Valeo 1976) and then the broadening of the scope in Citizen United v FEC (2010), which extends to corporations the right to campaign for or against candidates.
“The prosecution had to make sure that there was a conviction because now the other donors and the other coordinators know there was a conviction and they treated him relatively well. No one wants to wait to be last,” said the professor.
On July 25, 2020, the CPI published an investigation denouncing that this Super Pac, which was promoting a campaign against then-Governor Wanda Vázquez, and who had been registered by a donor and close friend of Pedro Pierluisi, had received $250,000 in donations from two ghost foundations, which gave way to the complaints that two years later led to Fuentes Fernández’s admission of guilt.
Guillemard told the CPI that he did have a say about the campaign
At least five sources from the New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) interviewed by the CPI identified attorney and fundraiser Andrés ‘Andy’ Guillemard Noble as Individual 1, who is Pierluisi’s associate and who knew and exchanged messages about the donations with Fuentes Fernández and the secretary of the shell corporations. Guillemard Noble is married to the Governor’s sister, Caridad Pierluisi, who led the political campaign in 2020 and currently carries out ad honorem duties in the Governor’s Office, according to what Pierluisi said at the beginning of his four-year term.
Sources within the PNP assured the CPI that Guillemard Noble already has Atty. Francisco Rebollo Casalduc as his legal representative. A call and a message to the attorney went unanswered.
“Andy has that ability to raise large amounts of money with one call. That’s Andy,” one of the sources said of the feds’ description of Pierluisi’s ‘associate’ that he is a “significant fundraiser.”
Guillemard Noble, who was seen this Monday at the San Juan airport traveling to Chicago, did not answer the call or message from the CPI.
Although he did not have an official position in the last campaign, Guillemard Noble appeared as one of the main strategists, after years linked to political campaigns, especially in the finances. He oversaw finances in Pierluisi’s gubernatorial primary campaign in 2016 and in 2008 and in 2012 he was the director of Pierluisi’s campaign committees for the candidacy for Resident Commissioner in Washington. His family ties with the candidate have always kept him close, according to research published by the CPI in 2020. “Yes. I like to give my opinion and I always do so with the best wishes for Pedro Pierluisi to serve the people of Puerto Rico,” said Guillemard Noble in an interview with the CPI after confirming his participation in the campaign.
Furthermore, Guillemard Noble, a constant donor and fundraiser in the PNP and the Democratic Party, in 2008 was the coordinator of Barack Obama’s Democratic primary campaign in Puerto Rico.
As director of the Puerto Rico Democratic Party’s Misión Estadista, he organized a fundraising event at his house, with tickets costing up to $25,000 per person, and in which the then US House of Representatives minority speaker, Nancy Pelosi, was Pierluisi’s special guest.
According to the federal case documents, “Individual 1” is the only figure that is directly linked to Pierluisi. The documents, however, avoid mentioning whether this “Individual 1” formally belongs to Pierluisi’s campaign committee.
At least four attorneys consulted on and off the record by the CPI agreed that this could be the reason why, so far, the authorities have not filed charges against other participants in the scheme, such as Guillemard Noble, and are waiting for one of those involved to cooperate and offer information that can prove if there was coordination with the then gubernatorial candidate or if he knew about the scheme with the shell corporations.
“My impression is that the feds are waiting to see if any of those individuals told Pierluisi ‘I’m helping on the side.’ They could have accused Individual 1 and 2. I have no doubt that with the evidence they have, what they’re looking for is that [the donors and other participants] talk [to the federal prosecutor’s office]. What the prosecutor is saying is that ‘I already got the main coordinator and I’m saying there’s an Individual 1 who fundraises for the Governor and works for the Governor. Either you bring the Governor to me or any of the others bring him to me’,” Acevedo said.
The chairman of the Puerto Rico Bar Association’s Electoral Law Commission, Atty. Samuel Quiñones García agreed that the Federal Prosecutor’s Office account puts pressure on the co-participants.
“Indeed, that’s the most likely inference about the feds’ strategy. The mentions of these individuals as part of the Iter criminis or development of a confessed crime are a brutal instrument of pressure,” said Quiñones García.
According to the lawyer and investigator of corruption cases, the fact that the description of “Individual 1” does not mention that he was an official part of Pierluisi’s political committee could be the reason why the authorities did not establish coordination (as a crime). However, the sources consulted agreed that if it is Guillemard Noble, because of his family relationship and closeness, it would be very difficult to believe that no one else knew how those donations were being raised.
“By omitting the use of the word committee, you can understand that he was operating as a free agent. Now, evidently, the participation of Individuals 1 and 2 was essential so that the elements that typify the crime of lying to the FEC [Federal Election Commission] about the identity of the political donors could be established. They are key to the transaction behind the scheme,” said Quiñones García.
The Governor denied on Thursday that his brother-in-law had links with the Super PAC or that any of the donors had directly benefited from contracts in his administration. “I answer for my committee and everyone who worked on my committee, including my brother-in-law. I put my hands on fire for my committee and everyone who worked on my committee. They did not coordinate with any PAC, including that PAC. Let that be clear. And by the way, those complaints failed. Do you know why? Because it wasn’t coordinated. I’m done with this issue,” said Pierluisi, dramatizing his statement with an “I say it before God.”
“I differ from the Governor. He’s the only one who thinks this is over. I’m convinced that this is just beginning. Are you saying that someone donates $200,000 without any other interest in that campaign? Someone called them! Who called them?” Acevedo questioned.
Pierluisi learned of the existence of the ghost foundations as early as 2020, when the CPI asked him for a reaction to the fact that Salvemos a Puerto Rico had been registered by a close friend of his and that it had received $250,000 in donations from these two ghost foundations. “I don’t have any information on that,” Pierluisi said at that time
More federal arrests in the other PNP committee
It also transpired Thursday that federal authorities are preparing to charge electoral crimes against players on the other side of the PNP’s primary chessboard: former Governor Wanda Vázquez and former Public Housing Administrator and Vázquez campaign collaborator John Blakeman. The former governor would be accused of having received illegal donations from Julio M. Herrera Velutini, a Bancrédito banker and Venezuelan national. Vázquez’s lawyer, Luis Plaza, announced that his client is preparing to face accusations of alleged electoral fraud.
Who are the donors in the scheme that benefited Pierluisi?
Developers, people singled out for the irregular procurement of COVID-19 tests, insurance firms and lawyers with juicy contracts with current government agencies are some of the players that oversee the 10 corporations listed in Fuentes Fernández’s admission of guilt for covering up illegal donations through the Super Pac Salvemos a Puerto Rico that favored Governor Pierluisi during the last primary and electoral cycle.
The defendant confirmed this to prosecutor Jonathan Jacobson of the US Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section during the hearing before New Hampshire Judge Joseph Laplante.
“There’s an understanding in Puerto Rico that donors benefit by remaining anonymous. They would not be related to large political contributions. Further down the road, public officials could not be attached to the benefits that could be given to these donors,” the prosecutor explained.
After the prosecutor explained how the scheme was executed, and the motivations for it, the judge asked Fuentes Fernández if he agreed with the prosecutor’s representation, and he replied that “it was accurate.”
The founder of Salvemos a Puerto Rico has private and public companies in the United States and Puerto Rico in his client portfolio, according to the Fuentes-Fernández & Company, P.S.C. website.
In 2018, he identified himself as secretary of the Puerto Rico Education Foundation. This trust paid the salary of an aide to convicted former Secretary Julia Keleher and Department of Education advisers.
In addition to the donations from the two ghost foundations, Salvemos a Puerto Rico had direct donors, including other close associates of the Governor, namely Roberto Cacho, The Garffer Group of Legal Advisors LLC, owned by Jerome Garffer, and Bancrédito Holding, the latter allegedly implicated in donations to former Governor Wanda Vázquez’s political committee during the primaries.
Essential Insurance Services Inc. – Donation: $200,000
According to its website, this insurance agency created in 2006 represents the insurance industry’s main companies, in health, life, cancer, disability, property, auto, surety, and public liability benefits, among others. Since 2010, Essential has offered consulting services and insurance procurement, financial and health-related agreements to the municipalities of Carolina, Florida, Juana Díaz, Orocovis, Fajardo and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), according to the Comptroller’s Office Contract Registry. In addition to the $200,000 in donations to the Super Pac, Luvián Rodríguez Robles, president of the corporation, directly donated $21,150 to PNP politicians in 2020.
Meanwhile, Essential Insurance’s treasurer, Marc S. Tacher Díaz, who is married to Luvián Rodríguez Robles, also appears donating $2,735.57 (in-kind donation) to the Pedro Pierluisi Committee, another $4,105 to former Guaynabo Mayor Ángel Pérez Otero’s political committee, $2,700 to ousted Governor Ricardo Rosselló; and $3,300 to the Comité PR51, for a total of $12,840.57 in political donations between March and October 2020. Tacher Díaz is also treasurer of the board of directors of Grupo Camarero, the corporation that owns and manages the Hipodromo Camarero, the main horse race track in the Island.
Evelyn Pereira Alméstica, secretary of Essential Insurance Services, donated another $5,400 to the Pedro Pierluisi Committee, in addition to $2,700 to former PNP Mayor of Cataño Félix ‘El Cano’ Delgado’s committee; $2,700 to ousted Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s committee; and $300 to Popular Democratic Party Mayor of Carolina José C. Aponte Dalmau’s political committee, for a total of $11,100 in political donations between December 2019 and December 2020.
AP Engineering Inc. — Donation: $94,000 | JAAP LLC – Donation: $75,800
These two companies appear registered in Florida by the engineer Elvin Pagán Padilla. Both share the same address in the city of Davie. In addition to Pagán Padilla, Jorge Acosta appears in both companies as an authorized person.
AP Engineering, which does construction and repair work, has been incorporated since 2007. JAAP was registered as a limited liability company in January 2018.
In Puerto Rico, Pagán Padilla appears in at least five active corporations in the Registry of Corporations. For the most part, the companies are engaged in engineering-related jobs, except for one, Iglesia Universal Inc., whose purpose is to “preach the good news of the gospel and win converts for the kingdom of heaven.” The others are LT Automation, AP Equipment Inc., Q Engineering PSC and PAC Engineering PSC.
Pagán Padilla chairs LT Automation, which since 2008 has had contracts for more than $50 million with the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, the Municipality of San Juan and PREPA, recently including LUMA Energy. On the company’s website, Acosta is identified as the company’s co-owner, and in some contracts, as vice president.
According to the directory of the College of Engineers, his engineering license expired in April of last year. Currently, his status is listed as “suspended.”
Pagán Padilla and his wife Magda González Guzmán appear as donors to both the PNP and the Popular Democratic Party with a total of $8,000. Acosta also donated $3,000 to the Ricardo Rosselló Committee and $2,000 to former San Juan Mayor candidate, Leo Díaz.
After leaving several messages at their office and sending emails so that they would get in touch with the CPI, neither Pagán Padilla nor Acosta answered.
Alejandro Brito-Zubizarreta — Donation $50,000
He presided over the Puerto Rico Home Builders Association from 2011 to 2013. Through his firm Brito Development Group, he has developed important projects such as Murano Luxury Apartments, Palma Real, Palma Real Estates, Estancias Reales and Quintas Reales. He appears donating to the Committee of former Guaynabo Mayor, Ángel Pérez, up to two days before his arrest in December, for $10,100.
He currently has pre-approval for a project under a company called Égida 837, LLC consisting of 192 housing units in Guaynabo with disaster recovery funds, known as CDBG-DR, and low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC).
The Housing Finance Authority (AFV, in Spanish) published the availability of funds in September 2020 for new construction and rehabilitation of rental homes. The deadline to submit proposals was October 30, but the AFV extended the call until November 20, 2020. Égida 837, LLC, was registered on October 19, 2020.
Through these same funds, Brito Zubizarreta submitted another project also in Guaynabo under the Corcovado LLC firm registered on July 20, 2020. However, so far, this proposal is not on the list of pre-approved projects.
LIHTCs are a federal government tool that grants tax credits to developers, who generally sell them to investors in exchange for funds to finance construction, according to the AFV.
National Guard Exchange Military Store — Donation: $50,000
The CPI revealed in May 2020 that Ricky Castro sold some 50,000 rapid COVID-19 tests to the government without meeting the established purchasing standards, that the tests faced quality problems, and that he was unable to complete the delivery. But the legislative investigation into that purchase of COVID-19 tests, carried out by the House of Representatives Health Commission chaired by Juan Oscar Morales, did not refer the contractor to the authorities. The findings of that commission did not have major consequences.
Through Castro Business Enterprises (CBA), Castro operates the Puerto Rico National Guard Institutional Trust’s (FIGNA, in Spanish) military stores, whose executive director is Epifanio Jiménez Cruz.
Under the contract, CBA does business under the name NGX Military Stores. CBA pays FIGNA $450,000 monthly for the concession of 10 stores.
National Guard Adjutant General José J. Reyes said that neither FIGNA nor the military body “have made any financial donation to a political action group or groups at any time in its history.”
FIGNA is a public corporation and instrumentality of the Government of Puerto Rico, attached to the Puerto Rico National Guard.
Castro was president of the Chamber of Marketing, Industry and Food Distribution. He has donated more than $20,000 to politicians affiliated with the PNP, and several from the PPD.
NorthShore Management Corp. — Donation: $25,000
Company owned by developer Federico Stubbe. Through his firm, PRISA Group, he has developed multi-million-dollar high end private projects such as Sabanera, the Dorado Beach Resort, the Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton Reserve, the Hyatt Place Hyatt House, and the T-Mobile District in the Convention District.
The Pierluisi administration has upheld its endorsement of the Fairfield Inn & Suites hotel, belonging to the Marriott chain, in Luquillo and which, according to environmentalists and community leaders, would affect a wetland in the eastern coastal zone. The hotel, which is expected to open in March 2023, is proposed by the Luquillo Hotel Company, whose parent company is PRISA Group.
Little Pictures – Donation: $25,000
It was established in August 2017 by film producer Luillo Ruiz Ruiz, son of former Representative and former Ombudswoman, Iris Miriam Ruiz.
Ruiz Ruiz has been in the public eye for the number of tax credits he has received through his production company Pimienta Films. In 2013, the CPI revealed that the UK government was investigating possible tax evasion involving the Puerto Rico Film Corporation and Pimienta Films. Two years ago, an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation came to light, since Ruiz Ruiz had received $63 million in tax credits.
In addition to being a donor to former Governor Vázquez’s campaign ($2,700), Ruiz Ruiz donated to the committees of San Juan Mayor Miguel Romero with $1,750, ousted Governor Ricardo Rosselló with $2,500 and former Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz with $2,800.
Arturo Díaz-Angueira — Donation $20,000
Through his firm Díaz & Vázquez Law Firm PSC, registered in July 2019, the lawyer has accumulated $16,662,000 in contracts with PREPA.
He held several positions in the Department of Justice such as prosecutor of the General Litigation Division, assistant District Attorney, and director of the Federal Litigation Division. At the federal level, he was an Assistant Federal Public Defender and a US District Court Judge. Prior to establishing his firm, he worked with the firm Cancio, Nadal, Rivera & Díaz, in which he was a mentor to Associate Supreme Court Justice Roberto Feliberti.
He donated to former Governor Luis Fortuño.
LAS Enterprises Inc. — Donation: $15,000
Its incorporator and resident agent, Lizzette Santiago, has been an Act 22 beneficiary since September 2017, according to the Department of Economic Development and Commerce’s (DDEC, in Spanish) website. In May 2017, LAS Enterprises was registered with the Department of State.
LAS Enterprises has an Act 22 decree dated January 2018, according to the DDEC page.
The CPI called Santiago’s to ask her about LAS Enterprises and the donation. Her response was: “I don’t know what you’re talking about” and shortly after hung up. She was called several times the next day, but calls went straight to voicemail. A message was left but got no answer-back.
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Vanessa Colón Almenas is a corps member of Report for America.