Public Nuisances: A Very “Popular” Business

Legislative advisors who have also been members of the Popular Democratic Party Governing Board are consultants to the company referred to the Department of Justice for its business deals with municipalities.

June 27, 2023

Nelson Torres Yordán, Jerry Cruz Figueroa and Germán Monroig Pomales, three advisors to the presidents of the legislative bodies, have also been advisors to Universal Properties Realty Government Services, a company that is being investigated by the Department of Justice for alleged irregularities in the management of municipal public nuisance programs.

Cruz Figueroa is also a member of the Governing Board of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD, in Spanish), while Torres Yordán, who was a district representative and mayor of Guayanilla, was also part of that organization representing the Ponce district until February 2023. Additionally, the former mayor was Second Vice President of the Mayors Association and, in 2021 he was its executive director. This organization groups the PPD’s municipal executives.

Torres Yordán is an advisor to Universal Properties Realty in municipal contracts, as he acknowledged in a telephone interview with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish). In addition, he has a contract with the Puerto Rico Speaker of the House of Representatives’ Office, Rafael Hernández Montañez. He also has an advisory contract with the mayor of Aguadilla, Julio Roldán Concepción, and represents him on the Board of Mayors of the Municipal Revenues Collection Center (CRIM, in Spanish).

Adviser Germán R. Monroig Pomales.
Photo by Orlando Ramos |

“I basically review everything that has to do with contracts. I started reviewing contracts, verifying that the contracts complied with the Municipal Code, recommendations, and meetings, mainly, with the lawyers of the municipalities,” said Torres Yordán, who is a lawyer. “I rarely talk to the mayors. Basically, my role is to be that contact with the lawyers of the municipalities,” he said.

Former lawmaker and adviser Nelson Torres Yordán.
Photo taken from Facebook

Meanwhile, Cruz Figueroa is a part-time employee of the Senate and is assigned to the Administration Division which handles all the legislative body’s administrative matters.

The company is in charge of the process of forcibly expropriating municipal public nuisances and managing a purchase contract.
Photo taken from the company’s Facebook page

It was Cruz Figueroa who presented Universal Properties Realty’s work to Juncos Mayor Alfredo Alejandro Carrión, and spoke about the company to Caguas Mayor William Miranda Torres, the two municipal executives confirmed, and who contracted the company to handle public nuisances in their towns. At least five sources with direct knowledge confirmed that Cruz Figueroa was the connection for Universal Properties Realty to land contracts with several PPD mayors.

Caguas Mayor William Miranda Torres made a report on Universal Properties Realty Government Services and sent it to the Department of Justice. The pro-independence legislators María de Lourdes Santiago and Denis Márquez also made a report.
Photo by Wanda Liz Vega | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Monroig Pomales, who since 2022 has held a consulting contract with the Puerto Rico Speaker of the House of Representatives Office, has served as a liaison between Universal Properties Realty and the municipalities and has been their spokesperson to the press, as the company confirmed to the CPI.

This lawyer by trade was the one who led the former mayor of Guayanilla to work as a municipal advisor for Universal Properties Realty, Torres Yordán said. Monroig Pomales was executive director of the Puerto Rico Office in the Dominican Republic during the administration of former Governor Alejandro García Padilla.

The CPI asked PPD press spokeswoman, Jossie Vega, to disclose if she knew if any other member of the political collective’s governing bodies has an interest as a partner, employee, or contractor of Universal Properties Realty, but as of press time, she had not to respond.

In total, 22 municipalities, 15 of them headed by PPD mayors, signed agreements with Universal Properties Realty. Since March 2023, this company has been referred twice to the Department of Justice for possible legal violations in the administration of these municipal contracts, the first time, for a possible alleged fraud scheme, and the second, time after an internal investigation by the Municipality of Caguas into possible irregularities in declaring public nuisances and their sale, the CPI revealed.

Persuading mayors

The mayor of Juncos told the CPI that it was Cruz Figueroa who approached him to present Universal Properties Realty’s proposal for handling public nuisances and forced expropriations. That was before Cruz Figueroa became an adviser to the Senate president. The contract between the Municipality and the company was signed in 2018.

In Juncos, 12 properties declared public nuisances were expropriated.
Photo by Wilma Maldonado Arrigoitía | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Alejandro Carrión recalled that he agreed to see Universal Properties Realty’s proposal because he had known Cruz Figueroa for “many years” when he worked for the Municipality of Caguas during the administration of the late William Miranda Marín.

When he was already an advisor in the Senate, Cruz Figueroa also spoke to the current Mayor of Caguas, William Miranda Torres, about the company he advises.

“One time, when I went to visit the President of the Senate, he [Cruz Figueroa] mentioned something about that company,” said Miranda Torres. “That there is a company that was working with public nuisances called Universal,” said the Mayor of Caguas, when asked about what the President of the Senate’s adviser mentioned to him.

Figueroa Cruz, who is a real estate broker, advises Universal Properties Realty on real estate matters and in the operational area, the company said. The Senate adviser did not respond to any of the multiple requests for interviews that the CPI made.

The legislative aide was called and texted on his cell phone, a request was left with the Senate and with Universal Properties Realty press spokesman Daniel Hernandez, a well-known adviser to PPD politicians.

In 2013, Cruz Figueroa left his job as director of the Office of Recycling and Sanitation in  Caguas to work at Waste Collection, the company owned by convict Oscar Santamaría, who was seeking a solid waste management contract with the Municipality of Cidra. Since Santamaría was legal adviser to the then mayor of Cidra, Javier Carrasquillo Cruz, he made Figueroa Cruz the president of the solid waste collection company with the sole purpose of obtaining that contract and disassociating himself from the company — on paper.

That was Figueroa Cruz’s explanation when the Department of Justice interviewed him, according to a report presented on April 5, 2016, to the then Justice Secretary César Miranda. According to Jay Fonseca’s news website, Cruz Figueroa told prosecutors that three months after signing that contract with Cidra, Santamaría fired him.

Justice was investigating a possible ethical violation of the former Mayor for contracting with the solid waste collection company that had been set up by the person who had been his legal advisor up to four days before signing that contract. Santamaría was convicted of federal crimes, while the Puerto Rico Department of Justice found nothing wrong when it investigated him.

During this four-year term and before being an advisor to the President of the Senate, Cruz Figueroa had an administrative services contract with PPD Senator Javier Aponte Dalmau. The contract that began in February 2021 expired in June of that same year. In 2018, Cruz Figueroa incorporated JCF Services, a corporation for the maintenance of green areas, construction, and general maintenance.

Although he currently does not have a formal relationship with Universal Properties Realty, Monroig Pomales admitted in an interview with the CPI that, when required, he still does work for that company. In recent weeks he has tried to address the dissatisfaction expressed by some mayors and the public accusations against the company, the adviser said.

He also responds to communications consulting requests that the company makes. He acknowledged that it was he who responded to a request for information that the CPI made to Universal Properties last week.

“I don’t deny that I was actively working with Universal for quite a [long] period. Right now, I can’t say if I am or not. The truth is that I don’t have a contractual relationship per se, but I would love for them to resolve their problem so that I can go on working,” he told the CPI.

In the Registry of Corporations at the State Department, his name is linked to at least eight companies that opened and closed between 2004 and 2016. Between 2014 and 2015 his firm Monroig Pomales & Associates had contracts with the now-convicted former mayor of Guayama, Eduardo Cintrón Suárez, who last year was sentenced to 30 months in prison for conspiracy to commit bribery. It was precisely in Guayama where Monroig Pomales concentrated his work for Universal Properties, according to what he told the CPI.

Guayanilla opens the door to Universal Properties Realty

Torres Yordán was the first mayor to hire Universal Properties Realty to run the Public Nuisance Control Program, which includes the forced expropriation of real estate. When the agreement was signed, the company had barely been organized for six days, according to documents filed with the State Department. The contract with Guayanilla was valid for five years, but the company did not expropriate any property, according to the former mayor, “because of all the situations that happened in the past four years and that I had to face: hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemic.”

After Torres Yordán lost the elections in November 2020, he submitted his resignation with two weeks to go until the end of the four-year term, but his political committee remains active, according to Office of the Electoral Comptroller’s records.

In December 2020, the former mayor of Guayanilla was recruited to lead the Mayors Association, but he stepped down in September 2021. His exit came because he had several offers to offer advisory services, which were incompatible with his duties in the Association, its president, Luis Javier Hernández Ortiz, explained to the CPI.

“The director’s contract is for professional services. There’s no problem with having other work commitments as long as it doesn’t affect the service to the Association. In my case, I asked that he only work for the Association. But the contract does not prohibit him from having other jobs,” said the mayor of Villalba.

In 2021, Torres Yordán became lawyer and advisor to Universal Properties Realty, through a contract with his company NTY, L.L.C, formalized in January 2021.

Torres Yordán said that while he was mayor, he got a request from general contractor Carlos R. Jiménez Vega, to present what Universal Properties Realty could do to deal with public nuisances. The company’s proposal was also evaluated by the municipal legislature, which approved it, Torres Yordán said.

Torres Yordán said that while he was executive director of the Mayors Association, he did not support contracting Universal Properties Realty and did not recall if the company sponsored the organization in any way.

The CPI was able to confirm that Universal Properties Realty published an ad — at a cost of $2,000 — in the magazine that the Mayors Association published in June 2021 to mark the swearing-in of Hernández Ortiz as the new president of the PPD mayors. At that time, Torres Yordán was the executive director of the Association.

The Association did not work directly with the magazine but commissioned consultant Mickey Espada to work on its content, design, and printing, including the search for sponsors so that it would not represent an expense for the Association, its president said. Espada told the CPI that his role was to facilitate the project for free. For the publication, he secured three sponsors who paid $2,000 each, including Universal Properties. The other sponsors were an insurance company and another that handles federal funds. Universal Properties Realty’s sponsorship was locked down with Monroig Pomales during an Association meeting in Aguadilla.

“Germán [Monroig Pomales] was the one who told me, look, I have someone called Universal who can help you with $2,000,” Espada said.

Hernández Ortiz said Universal’s sponsorship did not imply support from the Association for that company to manage municipal eminent domain. “We don’t support or endorse a particular product. If someone wants to provide a service, they obviously must go directly to the municipality,” the Mayor of Villalba insisted.

Meanwhile, Torres Yordán also said he abstains from participating — as a representative of the Mayor of Aguadilla — when the CRIM Board has discussed an issue related to Universal Properties. In March 2023, the CRIM Governing Board determined that it would no longer go to court to challenge deductions on CRIM debts made by municipalities in eminent domain processes. Universal Properties sent a letter to that Board to establish, among other things, that the CRIM’s court appearances had the effect of unnecessarily delaying the forced expropriation process.

Torres Yordán said that before he was hired at Universal Properties Realty, he did not know José A. Deyá, who was vice president of the company. He said that working together, they developed a friendship and that’s why he attended his wedding in 2021. Torres Yordán’s wife, Judge Lizandra Avilés Mendoza, officiated Deyá’s wedding ceremony, as seen in a photo published on social media by real estate broker Andrés Reyes Vélez, president of Universal.

Torres Yordán has been linked to the PPD’s political networks for more than two decades. Before occupying the legislative seat and winning the Guayanilla mayor’s office, he was an advisor and legislative assistant in the House of Representatives and spokesman for the PPD in the Guayanilla Municipal Legislature.

Universal loses more contracts 

The Mayor of Juncos told the CPI that he would not renew the Universal Properties Realty contract, which expires next  September. However, he insisted that his administration had not assigned new properties to this company for nearly a year.

“I’ve been fighting with them for a year without anyone knowing,” the municipal executive claimed, adding that his administration cooperated with the Department of Justice investigation about this company.

Alejandro Carrión said he made that decision because more than a dozen people came to his office to complain because Universal Properties Realty did not want to return the money they gave as an option to buy a public nuisance. Those people were no longer interested in the property due to the delay in the transaction because the municipality withdrew from the expropriation or because there were problems in the judicial or registry transaction.

“The last thing I said [to the directors of Universal Properties Realty] was that I was going to join the people’s lawsuit,” said the mayor of Juncos, who assured that the company finally returned the money.

Universal Properties Realty confirmed in a written statement to the CPI that “when the person has no interest or lost it, the refund is processed, according to the contract.” However, Richport and Alejandro Investment companies, for example, sued Universal Properties Realty to collect money because the public nuisance management company did not want to return the money. The judicial record also shows cases of other people in similar circumstances and others in which the company claimed the court’s lack of jurisdiction to resolve collection claims because the contract signed by the buyer required a mediation process.

The Mayor of Juncos also said the company allegedly took actions to execute properties that were not among those entrusted by the Municipality, but that would be in high demand once they were on the market. “The ones I gave them in the Flores neighborhood, they didn’t even touch them,” he said.

He said, however, that the company wanted him to sign resolutions to expropriate several residences in the Estancias neighborhood, which the mayor said is an attractive residential area in the real estate market.

“Estancias is a community that has been here for about 12 years. There are some very ugly houses on the outside, but I send a brigade to those houses to pressure wash them, cut the weeds and they’re worth $125,000,” Alejandro Carrión said. “Some people that Universal sent wanted to buy them for $20,000 and I [said]: ‘Yes, come in tomorrow, February 30, and I’ll sign them over to you,’” he said in a sarcastic tone.

The mayor of Juncos said Universal Properties Realty is also in charge of looking for a buyer for the public nuisance in his municipality. Only public nuisances that have a buyer are expropriated because they will be responsible for the maintenance and procedural expenses that the company incurred, which usually amounts to approximately $22,000.

Universal Properties Realty pointed out that it is the municipalities who refer people interested in buying the properties, but when they do not have the financial resources to buy, “people who have them and meet the legal requirements are sought. The person must repair the property in 60 days to remove the eminent domain status. In the case of public nuisance properties, banks do not provide financing for this process.”

Alejandro Carrión said he had not received a single penny from the public nuisance sales that Universal Properties Realty has closed.

“I don’t know how the Court has decided in those cases. I began to read the cases and I wondered: how is it possible? [that they admit these transactions],” said the mayor, who assured he had appointed a lawyer and a municipal employee to oversee the transactions.

According to Alejandro Carrión, nuisances in his town have been monopolized by “big interests” and “and they have taken advantage.”

“What they’re doing isn’t fair,” he insisted. “I wanted to get rid of what I hate: public nuisances,” he said, insisting that unoccupied and unkept buildings threaten the safety, health, and well-being of Junco’s residents.

The Mayor said his only interest is that property owners take responsibility for the upkeep of their property. In the case of Vilma Velázquez Hernández which the CPI reported, she said her house was declared a public nuisance because she stopped maintaining the property when she went to the United States for four years. However, since the nuisance condition was removed and the house is inhabited, the municipality has no interest in expropriating and Universal Properties Realty acted on its own when it continued with the process even though the residence was no longer abandoned. The Mayor assured that the Municipality would drop the case in Court.

Vilma Velázquez Hernández went to the Court in her own right to prevent the residence where she lives in Juncos from being expropriated. 
Courtesy photo

Contrary to what several court records reflect, Universal Properties Realty said, “at any stage of the process that the legitimate owner appears and agrees to eliminate the public nuisance condition, the property is removed from the listing and from any filed case.” It stated that when the registered owner appears and the case is dropped, the company “assumes the loss of the cases.”

Reorganization underway

Torres Yordán said Universal Properties Realty is undergoing an internal reorganization process. Deyá recently left the company, and Carlos Jiménez Vega “was removed from the company a long time ago.” Reyes Vélez continues to lead the company, and Abraham Freyre Medina also remains a partner.

According to a corporate resolution dated September 28, 2018, Jiménez Vega assumed the vice presidency of Universal Properties Realty on that date, but before that, he had already worked for the company because, according to Torres Yordán, it was he who asked him to present Universal’s proposal that culminated in a contract in February of that year.

His business relationship with real estate broker Andrés R. Reyes Vélez, president of Universal Properties Realty, began eight years before the establishment of the company that handles public nuisances in municipalities.

Jiménez Vega is related to several companies dedicated, among other services, to repairs and maintenance of structures. In 2016, he was one of the incorporators of Crown Real Estate Investment Corp., whose president and treasurer was Walter Pierluisi Isern until two months ago. Crown Real Estate Investment Corp. was dissolved in April of this year,  the same month that Pierluisi Isern pleaded guilty before the federal forum for misappropriating funds from the U.S. Department of Housing between 2014 and 2022. Pierluisi Isern is the cousin of Governor Pedro Pierluisi.

Jiménez Vega said he joined Universal Properties Realty due to the need to address the problem of abandoned properties and the “lack of housing for needy families.” However, in June 2020, he quit the company. “My departure from Universal was due to differences in the management of the corporation,” he told the CPI without offering details.

Vanessa Colón Almenas is a corps member of Report for America.


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