After more than two years investigating various former public officials accused of receiving kickbacks in connection with a government telecommunications contract, prosecutors have made their first formal charges.
Hernán Bravo, a former member of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) board of directors, has been formally accused of accepting approximately $1.05 million from multinational telecommunications firm Alcatel in 2001, according to the daily Al Día.
The charges were filed Jan. 23 before a judge from San José’s Second Circuit Court by the Adjunct Prosecutor’s Office for Economic Crimes. Additionally, Bravo has been ordered to pay the government $1.08 million, the daily reported.
According to the Prosecutor’s Office, Alcatel’s regional representatives channeled funds to Bravo and other officials to ensure Alcatel would receive a $149 million contract to operate 400,000 GSM cellular lines to the state-run ICE, which has a monopoly on telecommunications.
Other government officials under investigation in the case, which came to light in 2004 after the daily La Nación and other media published reports about the alleged kickbacks, include ex-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002). In total, former Alcatel officials are accused of distributing $9.6 million in bribes.
Among the expected witnesses in Bravo’s trial is ex-President Rafael Angel Calderón (1990-1994), accused of accepting kickbacks in another major case under investigation, involving a medical equipment purchase from a Finnish company. According to the daily, Calderón is expected to testify regarding the relationship between Bravo and another suspect.
Legal proceedings against Alcatel’s former senior vice-president for Latin America, Christian Sapsizian, are under way in the United States, where Alcatel – now Alcatel-Lucent – is a publicly traded company. Sapsizian is one of the former Alcatel officials accused of paying bribes to Costa Rican officials (TT, Dec. 8, 2006).
Other news in the case came this week when ICE announced it has decided to end its contract with Alcatel two years early, assuming operation of the 400,000 lines – an option stipulated in the original contract in the case that ICE is not satisfied with Alcatel’s service. Though part of this decision stemmed from widespread problems with coverage in the areas for which Alcatel is responsible, the daily La Nación reported, ICE president Pedro Pablo Quirós said the corruption allegations “weighed heavily” in the final decision.
The decision came days after the Ethics Branch of the Government Attorney’s Office asked the Second Circuit Court to increase an embargo on Alcatel’s services from $9 million to $17.81 million.
The Government Attorney’s Office requested the $9 million embargo in December 2005, but Alcatel made an $8.7 million bank deposit last November to free itself from the restriction. ICE officials then began evaluating the possibility of purchasing 200,000 additional cellular lines from the company, a step the Attorney’s Office strongly opposes, according to La Nación. Costa Rica ran out of GSM lines last October.
Meanwhile, the governments of Costa Rica and Finland have accused each other of delaying the other corruption investigation that involves ex-President Calderón. The case involves allegations that Calderón and other public officials received substantial “commissions” in connection with a $39.5 million purchase of medical equipment from Finnish company Instrumentarium by Costa Rica’s Social Security System (Caja).
According to La Nación, Costa Rican Prosecutor Andrea Murillo says her Finnish counterparts have not responded to three requests sent more than a year ago for information about companies involved in the transaction.
Poti Kari, administrative and consular attaché for the Finnish Embassy in Nicaragua, said the embassy received the requests and sent them to the appropriate authorities in early 2005, but has not received any response from Finland.
The complaints go both ways. The daily reported that Finnish Police Chief Tapio Kalliokoski has said Finland’s investigation of Instrumentarium, now a holding of General Electric, has not advanced at all because the Costa Rican Prosecutor’s Office hasn’t sent crucial information Finnish authorities requested in early 2006.
Murillo told La Nación the reason for that delay is that Finnish authorities did not authenticate the signatures properly, a step she called “indispensable.”