(STL.News) – A federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico returned a 13-count indictment against legislator María Milagros Charbonier-Laureano (Charbonier), aka “Tata,” a member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, as well as her husband Orlando Montes-Rivera (Montes), their son Orlando Gabriel Montes-Charbonier, and her assistant Frances Acevedo-Ceballos (Acevedo), for their alleged participation in a years-long theft, bribery, and kickback conspiracy.
The indictment charges Charbonier, Montes, Montes-Charbonier, and Acevedo with conspiracy; theft, bribery, and kickbacks concerning programs receiving federal funds; and honest services wire fraud. Charbonier, Montes, and Montes-Charbonier are facing two counts of money laundering. The indictment also charges Charbonier with obstruction of justice for destroying data on her cell phone.
According to the allegations in the indictment, from early 2017 until July 2020, Charbonier, Montes, Montes-Charbonier, and Acevedo executed a scheme to defraud the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico by engaging in a theft, bribery, and kickback scheme. In early 2017, Charbonier inflated her assistant Acevedo’s salary from $800 on a bi-weekly, after-tax basis to $2,100; this amount increased to nearly $2,900 by September 2019. Out of every inflated paycheck, it was agreed that Acevedo would keep a portion, and kick back between $1,000 and $1,500 to Charbonier, Montes, and Montes-Charbonier.
“Puerto Rico legislator María Milagros Charbonier-Laureano, her family, and her associates allegedly carried out a brazen scheme to defraud the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico through bribery, kickbacks, theft, and fraud,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “When elected officials betray the people’s trust in order to enrich themselves at the public’s expense, the Justice Department will hold them accountable.”
“I encourage those who have information of public officials involved in criminal acts to come forward. We will continue investigating and prosecuting elected officials whose criminal conduct enriches themselves at the expense of the government and their constituents,” said U.S. Attorney Muldrow for the District of Puerto Rico. “I commend our partners from the FBI for their tremendous efforts investigating this matter, particularly during the pandemic. I would also like to recognize the Public Integrity Section attorneys who supported this investigation and traveled to Puerto Rico in order to work with our District to present this case to the Grand Jury.”
“Most of the work we do takes place behind the scenes. Quality investigative work requires time and patience,” said Special Agent in Charge Rafael Riviere Vázquez of the FBI’s San Juan Field Office. “It is my hope that the people of Puerto Rico never doubt that we are doing the work that we have been entrusted to do. Public Corruption is FBI San Juan’s priority and it will continue to be a priority. Puerto Rico belongs to each and every one of us, and together we can take it back.”
The indictment further alleges that the defendants used a variety of means to transfer the kickbacks from Acevedo to Charbonier and her family. Allegedly, Acevedo would sometimes transfer cash by hand to Montes, Montes-Charbonier, and other individuals connected to Charbonier; Acevedo would sometimes transfer kickbacks in approximately $500 increments to Montes or to Montes-Charbonier using ATH Móvil, a mobile phone application that allows individuals who bank at certain financial institutions to send money to each other through an interface on their cell phones; and, at times, Acevedo left cash kickbacks in a pre-determined location, such as Charbonier’s purse or inside of a vehicle, for Charbonier to later collect.
The money laundering counts against Charbonier, her husband and son involve the secretive maneuvers that the Charbonier family used to move their illegally derived cash among themselves in a manner designed to conceal and disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, and control of that cash.
The indictment also charges Charbonier with obstruction of justice. After learning of the existence of the investigation into illegal activities in her office and after learning that a warrant had been obtained for one of her phones, Charbonier allegedly proceeded to delete certain data on the phone. In particular, Charbonier deleted nearly the entire call log, nearly all WhatsApp messages, and nearly all iMessages associated with this phone, the indictment alleges.
The indictment is the result of an ongoing investigation by the FBI and is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Jonathan E. Jacobson of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney María L. Montañez Concepción from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico.