Puerto Rico Justice Department Calls on Special Independent Prosecutor to Investigate Telegram Chat Members

Jan 13, 2020
7:43 PM
Originally published at Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Ricardo Rosselló in July, 2019. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The Justice Department asked the Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor Panel (SIP) on Friday to investigate the 12 members of the Telegram chat, which includes former governor Ricardo Rosselló-Nevares and some of his closest collaborators.

Without going into details about the findings of the six-month investigation, the Justice Department simply said the actions of the participants of the “WRF Chat” (War Room Fortaleza Chat) should be investigated “in depth” by a SIP. The agency did not detail the findings of the investigation nor did it publish its 109-page preliminary report.

In addition to Rosselló-Nevares, the Justice Department’s referral includes former Secretary of Public Affairs, Ramón Rosario-Cortés; lobbyist, Rosselló-Nevares’ campaign director and the government’s former representative before the Fiscal Control Board, Elías Sánchez-Sifonte; former Chief Financial Officer, former Treasury Secretary and former Chief of Staff, Raúl Maldonado-Gautier; former Secretary of State, Luis Rivera-Marín; former legal advisor to the governor, Alfonso Orona-Amilivia; former CFO, former fiscal agent and former representative of the government before the Board, Christian Sobrino-Vega; public relations executives Carlos Bermúdez-Urbina and Rafael Cerame-D’Acosta; advertising executive Edwin Miranda-Reyes; former Chief of Staff Ricardo Llerandi-Cruz; and former Secretary of Public Affairs, Anthony Maceira-Zayas.

Another person referred is former press secretary Yennifer Álvarez-Jaimes, who the Justice Department identified as a member of the Telegram chat, although she did not appear in the 889 pages published by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) last summer. Álvarez-Jaimes resigned from her post in July 2018, months before the period covered by the 889 published pages. The CPI tried to contact Álvarez-Jaimes for a reaction but could not reach her.

Finally, Justice referred the former director of La Fortaleza’s Communications Office, Rossy Santiago-Velázquez, although it did not detail the reasons. Santiago-Velázquez could not be reached.

The preliminary investigation —which is not public— consists of 109 pages and 35 boxes of evidence, after interviewing 45 witnesses and issuing more than 60 subpoenas, according to the Justice Department.

On July 13, 2019, the CPI published 889 pages that include conversations of the Telegram group chat between Rosselló-Nevares and 11 of his collaborators. The messages were published between the end of November 2018 and January 2019. Privileged and confidential government information was shared in the chat with private contractors who actively participated in the conversations. Furthermore, the chat also includes partisan political efforts that took place during working hours and using public resources.

The chat also exposed the moral character of the participants, who made misogynist, sexist and homophobic comments on a daily basis, persecuted political opponents and activists, and coordinated the political projection of the administration. After more than two weeks of protests in the streets asking for his resignation following the publication of the chat, Rosselló-Nevares stepped down on July 24, 2019 and left La Fortaleza on August 2, 2019.

There is no time limit for the SIP Panel to evaluate the report received from Justice and issue a resolution on how to proceed. In deciding to name a SIP, the entity will have 90 days to conduct a thorough investigation. If necessary, the Panel may grant the Special Independent Prosecutor an additional 90 days to complete the investigation.

“Today we’re receiving the report with the recommendations, along with the evidence that supports these recommendations. Next week, we will receive the file of the pending case before the Court of Appeals and the complete file of all the documentation raised during the investigation,” SIP Panel president Nydia Cotto-Vives confirmed to the CPI. She added that the delivery process of the materials should be completed next week and that the Panel’s evaluation process to determine whether to assign a SIP could take about a month.

The Government Ethics Office (GEO) is also conducting an investigation into the Telegram chat. The CPI asked the GEO about the status of its investigation, to which press director Jennifer Rodríguez-Ayala said, “What I can say at the moment is that it is ongoing. The investigation has not ended.”

Headed by Prosecutor Olga Castellón, the Justice Department’s investigation included a review of the mobile phones belonging to the majority of the chat members. Sánchez-Sifonte and Miranda-Reyes have refused to hand over their cell phones invoking their right not to self-incriminate.

On December 30, 2019 the agency filed a motion for reconsideration to the Court of Appeals to try to gain access to Sánchez-Sifonte’s and Miranda-Reyes’ mobile phones. This legal action “will be transferred to the SIP Panel to continue the procedure for the good of the people of Puerto Rico,” Justice Department said in its statement.

According to an affidavit by Agent Edna Cruz-Estrada as part of the search warrant and review of Former Treasury Secretary Maldonado-Gautier’s phone, at the end of July 2019 investigators had been unable to obtain the chat directly from the mobile phones after concluding the subpoena process of the chat members.

In its statement, Justice indicated the investigators “carefully examined the content of the WRF chat.”

Demonstrators march on Las Américas highway demanding the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, July 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Gianfranco Gaglione)

Federal Authorities Could Investigate

Federal authorities could have jurisdiction to investigate the possible commission of crimes in the Telegram chat because it is a digital platform that activates the interstate commerce clause. The use of a mobile messaging platform gives the federal prosecutor jurisdiction, Constitutional Law Professor Carlos Ramos and former Federal Prosecutor Osvaldo Carlo confirmed to the CPI.

“Such was the case of [former governor] Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá. [Those were] local electoral crimes, but he was federally accused of using email, so there could be federal jurisdiction. In the past we have seen a very lax federal prosecutor’s office on that issue and other times we see it being more rigorous to find federal jurisdiction,” Ramos said. Both lawyers agreed that for the federal jurisdiction to kick in, the possible commission of a state crime must exist, along with the use of electronic communication that impacts interstate commerce.

“I believe federal jurisdiction may exist because there are two elements that the federal prosecutor uses to determine if this type of event constitutes a federal crime. One is that communication has to travel through the channels of interstate commerce, and this is happening because these communications, although generated in Puerto Rico, go to servers outside the jurisdiction and return to Puerto Rico. That gives them the element of having an effect on interstate commerce. On the other hand, there must be the commission of a state crime. That combination is what gives federal authorities jurisdiction,” Carlo said.

He added that while the Justice Department could refer the preliminary investigation to federal authorities, the federal prosecutor’s office does not need a referral to investigate the matter.

“They could refer it, but the federal prosecutor does not need a referral. The federal prosecutor can act without a referral because it has the authority to act on any federal crime that is committed,” the former federal prosecutor added.

Ramos pointed out that if there is no formal referral to federal authorities, Justice should at least uphold communications with the federal prosecutor about the local investigation to avoid the so-called double exposure (Pueblo v. Sánchez Valle) in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined that a citizen cannot be prosecuted for the same crimes in both jurisdictions.

“The least there should be is communication. If there is any federal crime identical to a state crime according to Sánchez Valle, the first to go to court is the one with jurisdiction. If the federal authorities make the accusation first regarding the chat, it’s possible that the state can no longer accuse and vice versa,” he said.

Former acting chief of the federal prosecutor’s office, Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, said during a press conference on July 30, 2019 that federal authorities would respect the Justice Department’s investigation, not because of lack of federal jurisdiction, but because the local agency had started the investigation.

“The chat is being investigated by the Justice Department. Deference is always given to whoever began the investigation to retain jurisdiction. It’s not that there is no federal jurisdiction, it’s that they (Justice) are investigating and we will keep out of it,” Rodríguez said at the time.

At press time, the spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor in Puerto Rico, Lymarie V. Llovet, had not responded to the CPI regarding whether the federal agency is investigating or is considering investigating the exchange on Telegram.

Justice Secretary Dennise N. Longo-Quiñones confirmed to the CPI that if there were federal jurisdiction, the agency could refer the case to federal authorities.

“A referral to the federal prosecutor could be made regarding any case, since we have a collaboration agreement. Our continued collaboration means that, in those circumstances that warrant it, the Justice Department can refer matters to the federal prosecutor or its investigative agencies. However, we have to emphasize that, at this time, and as previously mentioned, the Justice Department is conducting said investigation under the time parameters established by Act No. 2 of February 23, 1988 of the Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor Panel. The Justice Department’s evaluation processes on the matter have not concluded,” the Justice Secretary said in written statements.

The 13 Members of the Telegram Chat and Their Participation

Ricardo Rosselló-Nevares: The former governor was an active chat participant and administrator. He coordinated partisan political work and constantly intervened in the discussion of public policy issues, as well as in mocking different sectors including obese people, women and the poor. He also wrote derogatory messages toward journalists and political adversaries such as the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, whom he called an “S.O.B.”

Never during the conversation did Rosselló-Nevares object to the dynamics or messages of the chat. Nor did he give instructions to stop the insults and mocking, including the exchange of confidential information or partisan political work.

Elías Sánchez-Sifonte: Lobbyist, Rosselló-Nevares’ campaign director and former representative of the government before the Fiscal Control Board, enjoyed direct access to La Fortaleza. Despite not holding any public office or contract with the government, Sánchez-Sifonte was part of the chat as administrator and active participant getting access to public policy discussions and the exchange of confidential information.

Like Rosario-Cortés, he opined and gave instructions on public policy issues. For example, to Sobrino’s questions about what the message would be about questions related to President Donald Trump and the federal recovery funds after María, Sánchez-Sifonte replies that he should use “the governor’s tweets.”

Edwin Miranda Reyes: Rosselló-Nevares’s publicist was another active participant and administrator of the chat in which he handled political work on social networks to boost the former governor’s political image. This included the creation of memes, coordination and manipulation of polls, and attacks on social networks against people through the use of fake accounts known as trolls.

He was also vocal against Rosselló-Nevares’ political opponents, as was the case of Rep. Manuel Natal, to whom he referred in the chat by saying “something must be done to scare this guy.”

Carlos Bermúdez-Urbina: The contractor handled much of Rosselló-Nevares’ public and media strategy. The chat shows how Bermúdez-Urbina, who also represents urban music artist Ozuna, handled interviews and relations with journalists and media outlets.

He was also a constant participant in the mocking against the political opposition, obese people and women. Bermúdez-Urbina’s contracts were canceled immediately after the chat was published.

Christian Sobrino-Vega: He was the government’s Chief Financial Officer and Rosselló-Nevares’ representative before the Board after Sánchez-Sifonte left that position. He discussed public policy issues with third private parties and shared in the chat government information classified as “confidential.” This was the case of a legal analysis made by the Board’s firm regarding the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions’ unstable financial situation.

Sobrino-Vega, who was also an administrator in the chat, also made comments alluding to the accumulation of corpses in the Institute of Forensic Sciences after Hurricane Maria, when he said, “Now that we’re on that subject, do we not have any corpses to feed our crows? They clearly need attention. Attention and recognition for their great work of collecting what is on the floor now. But so are the crows. You give them one eye yet they want the other. The issue is intense.”

Ramon Rosario-Cortés: The lawyer actively participated in the chat before and after leaving the government at the end of 2018, giving instructions on what should be done on public management issues. He also suggested actions to impair former Police Monitor Arnaldo Claudio, because “he has hit us hard,” as he said in the chat.

Rosario-Cortés also conducted partisan political work, like when he asked publicist Miranda-Reyes to coordinate attacks on social media and audiovisual material, such as a video of former gubernatorial candidate for the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), Roberto Prats, in which “the candidate himself accepts that he’s a bench warmer.”

Raúl Maldonado-Gautier: In the 889 pages of the chat that the CPI obtained, the former Treasury Secretary, former Chief Financial Officer and former Chief of Staff hardly participated compared to the rest of the group.

However, like the others, Maldonado discussed public policy issues with third parties and spent time participating —in a coordinated manner— in the public discussion to follow the Rosselló-Nevares administration’s blueprint and narrative.

Alfonso Orona-Amilivia: La Fortaleza’s former legal advisor consistently provided crime statistics before making them public. He discussed public policy issues with third parties and came to suggest actions to remove former Police Monitor Arnaldo Claudio from his post.

He openly discussed government legal matters before third parties, such as the Police Reform case, in which he criticized court decisions, such as the appointment of a special commissioner by federal Judge Gustavo Gelpí, and the local court’s decision in favor of the NGO Espacios Abiertos in its lawsuit against the government asking for the publication of the report on its tax incentives.

Máximo Rafael Cerame-D’Acosta: Rosselló-Nevares’ communications advisor through his RCD International Advisory firm. Cerame-D’Acosta has known the ex-governor since working with his father, Pedro Rosselló-González, in the 1990s.

In the chat, he actively participated in the discussion of public policy issues and carried out partisan political work, such as coordinating photos from the PDP convention. After the chat was published, Rosselló-Nevares also announced the cancellation of Cerame-D’Acosta’s contract.

Ricardo Llerandi-Cruz: Rosselló-Nevares’ former Chief of Staff was one of two members who remained in Governor Wanda Vázquez-Garced administration after the chat was published and the former governor stepped down.

In the chat, Llerandi-Cruz commented on government and partisan politics issues. He resigned from the government on October 25, 2019 after returning for some time to his original position as executive director of the Puerto Rico Trade and Export Company.

Luis Rivera-Marín: Rosselló-Nevares’ former Secretary of State who participated sporadically in the published conversation. He commented against the LGBTQ community, journalists and political opponents. Rivera-Marín resigned on the same day the CPI published 889 pages of the Telegram chat.

Anthony Maceira-Zayas: The Rosselló-Nevares administration’s former secretary of Public Affairs was the last to leave the government, when Gov. Vázquez-Garced asked for his resignation on Nov. 6, 2019. He was also the last member to be part of the Telegram chat, when added in January, right after assuming the position of secretary of Public Affairs.

His role in the chat included sharing and discussing public policy information and coordinating partisan political work in favor of Rosselló-Nevares.

Yennifer Álvarez-Jaimes: Rosselló-Nevares’ former press secretary does not appear in the 889 chat pages published by the CPI. Justice revealed Álvarez-Jaimes’ participation in the chat in its referral to the SIP Panel. Álvarez-Jaimes resigned from her position in the government on July 25, 2018 and currently works as editor of the English-language weekly newspaper, The Weekly Journal.