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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Garbage Scandal Erupts, San José Mayor Implicated

San José Mayor Johnny Araya this weekrejected calls that he step down from his postuntil state prosecutors finish investigatingwhether he accepted illegal payments from aprivate waste-management company.In a written statement from Beijing, whereAraya spent the week trying to persuade Chinesepoliticians to support a project to revitalize downtownSan José, the mayor denied allegations publishedMonday in the daily La Nación that he waspaid as much as $65,000 in connection with anexclusive multimillion-dollar contract to disposeof the capital’s trash.During an on-air phone interview with AmeliaRueda of Radio Monumental the same day, the mayorsaid he helped arrange the contract with Berthier EBIde Costa Rica, the company that operates San José’sonly landfill, in an effort to find a solution to the long unresolvedproblem of solid-waste treatment in thenation’s largest city, which produces more than 430metric tons of garbage daily.The inauguration of EBI’s La Carpio EnvironmentalTechnology Park in west San José in late 2000 was heraldedas the beginning of a new era of garbage management in greater San José, since theRío Azul landfill, where the city formerlysent its trash, exceeded its capacity yearsbefore (TT, Nov. 24, 2000).“I have not received any payment for thiswork; I did it because it was my obligationand my responsibility,” Araya told Monumentallisteners. “I have made mistakes,possibly many, but none has to do with animmoral act such as accepting a bribe.”Both Araya and EBI said they are consideringsuing La Nación for the reports,which they suggested are based on falsifieddocuments.Still, at least three presidential candidatesthis week called for Araya to stepdown until the Chief Prosecutor’s Officefinishes its investigation, and the politicalparty the mayor belongs to, the NationalLiberation Party, has asked its EthicsTribunal to look into the accusations, LaNación reported.IN its top story Monday, La Naciónreproduced a document detailing allegedpayments made between 1999 and 2001,totaling $112,800, from EBI to nine cityofficials, including Araya, MunicipalAdvisor Carlos Villalobos, Director ofAdministrative Contracting Mario Vargasand six of the nine members of theMunicipal Council who voted to approvethe contract with EBI: Gerardo Barboza,Juan Diego Gómez, Melania Guevara,Fernando Jiménez, Rafael Ramírez andOscar Vidal.All nine have denied receiving paymentsfrom EBI.The document, which La Nación reportsis part of an investigation the Prosecutor’sOffice began last December, is signed byformer EBI deCosta Rica financialmanager NormandeHéroux,who now lives inCanada with herhusband, formerEBI employeeBenoit Héroux.La Naciónsent its investigativereporter GianninaSegnini toCanada to interviewthe Héroux,but the couple refused to meet with thereporter. In fact, according to La Nación,Benoit tried running Segnini’s car off theroad after she had followed him for morethan an hour making signed requests for abrief interview.La Nación did not mention how itobtained a copy of the document, which isin French and titled, “Agreement withJohnny Araya.”On Wednesday, the daily La PrensaLibre reported EBI provided it with a copyof a notarized signed statement from NormandeHéroux saying both the documentand her signature, as published in LaNación, are false.“The document is not false,” Segninitold The Tico Times Wednesday.Prosecutor’s Office spokesman FabiánBarrantes told The Tico Times this week noinformation about the ongoing investigationcan be released by the Judicial Branch.LA Nación reported the allegationswere submitted to the Prosecutor’s Officeby a lottery vendor named FranciscoMarín, who declined to comment.In his statement, Araya says its standsout that La Nación journalists failed toinvestigate the man who presented thecriminal complaint before the Prosecutor’sOffice, and those who might be backinghim.“Is this posture professionally seriouswhen the honor and dignity of a person andhis family is at stake?” the mayor asks,adding he is at a loss to explain the motives“of the authors of this charade and thegame they are playing with La Naciónnewspaper.”OFFICIALS from EBI de Costa Rica,a subsidiary of the Canada-based EBIGroup, also denied any payments weremade to government officials.Earlier this month, La Nación reportedthat in a lawsuit filed in Canada in 2001,Sébastien Hénault, EBI de Costa Rica’sfinancial officer before Normande Héroux,alleged the company had a policy of “payingbribes.”Following that report, EBI GeneralManager Juan Carlos Obando told TheTico Times, “The content of the lawsuit isabsolutely false.” He said the Prosecutor’sOffice investigation would eventuallyprove as much (TT, July 8).EBI officials did not return Tico Timesphone calls or answer questions submittedin writing this week.THE San José Mayor’s Office has alsodrawn criticism from the ComptrollerGeneral’s Office, responsible for reviewinggovernment contracts, for its allegedlack of controls over the EBI contract.In a report issued June 30, theComptroller’s Office says city officials’lack of oversight has allowed irregularities,such as the landfill operator subcontractingwork without authorization from the city,and EBI receiving solid waste from othermunicipalities at its La Carpio landfill inviolation of a 2001 resolution of theEnvironment and Energy Ministry.The Comptroller’s Office has givenAraya until the end of September torespond and comply with various ordersissued in the report.LAST week, further fueling the controversysurrounding EBI, La Naciónreported that a former environmentalsupervisor from the Health Ministry’sDepartment of Human EnvironmentProtection, which approves operating permitsfor landfills, received consulting feesfrom EBI in connection with the company’senvironmental-impact study for itsproposed Aserrí project.The company says its proposed Aserrílandfill south of San José will provide aplace to dispose of the estimated 750 metrictons of waste now being sent east of thecapital to the Río Azul landfill, which isexpected to be shut down in the near future(see separate article).The former Health Ministry official,engineer Oscar Guzmán, says he was onleave without pay at the time of the consultingwork for EBI, and furthermore wasnot being paid the salary premium requiredfor employee exclusivity, the daily reported.Guzmán later left his job at the HealthMinistry to work for EBI at the La Carpiolandfill.EBI claims the document used by LaNación for the July 11 report also was falsified,La Prensa Libre reported Wednesday.La Nación reporter Segnini told TheTico Times the newspaper has proof thedocuments are not false.“We do not retract anything. Everythingwe reported is absolutely true,” she said.


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