A former executive for the French telecommunications company Alcatel recently confessed in U.S. federal court to having dished out $2.5 million in bribes to high-level Costa Rican officials to obtain a government contract to provide services.
Christian Sapsizian admitted to two of 10 charges he was arrested for in the U.S. state of Florida last November. In exchange for his confession, the rest of the charges have been dropped, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The French citizen entered a guilty plea for conspiracy and corruption, and agreed to help authorities in their ongoing investigations in Costa Rica and in the United States in a high-reaching corruption scandal. In total, former Alcatel officials are accused of shelling out $9.6 million in bribes to Costa Rican officials – alleged recipients of the cash include former president Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) – to obtain a contract with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), which runs the state telecom monopoly.
ICE awarded Alcatel a $149 million mobile telephone contract in August 2001 for 400,000 GSM cell phone lines. Sapsizian admitted that from February 2000 through September 2004, he conspired with Alcatel’s Costa Rica manager and others to pay more than $2.5 million in bribes to Costa Rican officials.
In 2004, former ICE board member José Antonio Lobo admitted he’d received payments from Alcatel; his wife,U.S. citizen Jean Gallup, allegedly received $2.4 million related to the Alcatel contract (TT, Oct. 8, 2004).
Lobo also testified that ex-President Rodríguez accepted 40% of these kickbacks (TT, Oct. 15, 2004).
Lobo’s finger pointing prompted Rodríguez, who had just taken office as Central America’s first Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), to step down and return to Costa Rica to face the charges. People across the nation watched live news coverage of his arrest upon his arrival (TT, Oct. 22, 2004).
The ex-President has always maintained he is innocent of the charges. Rodríguez’s lawyer, Rafael Gairaud, told the daily La Nación Sapsizian’s testimony is a “lie,” the product of U.S. authorities offering to reduce heavy charges they were holding over Sapsizian’s head in exchange for a confession.
In an exclusive interview with The Tico Times while still under house arrest in mid-2005, Rodríguez, fresh from a stint in the penitentiary La Reforma, said he still believed “the members of the Supreme Court and judges will assure me a fair trial, but I have to fight to get it.” A court order continues to prevent Rodríguez from discussing the details of his case, but he has repeatedly argued that authorities have mishandled his case, allowing unfair press access that has influenced public opinion against him (TT, June 10, 2005).
Sapsizian was employed by Alcatel or one of its subsidiaries for more than 20 years. When the alleged corrupt payments were made, Sapsizian was the company’s deputy vice-president for Costa Rica. Now called Alcatel-Lucent, the French company is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Sapsizian, who is scheduled to receive his sentence Dec. 20, admitted the ICE board member who received the money was an advisor to a “senior government official,” with whom the payments were shared, according to the U.S. Department of Justice statement. Neither was named in the statement, however.
In February, Costa Rican prosecutors formally charged another former ICE board member, Hernán Bravo, with accepting $1.05 million in kickbacks. That same month, ICE cut its contract with Alcatel two years early, a decision in which the corruption scandal “weighed heavily,” according to ICE president Pedro Pablo Quirós (TT, Feb. 9).
The ICE-Alcatel corruption case is one of two that shook the country in 2004. The other case involved a medical equipment purchase by the Social Security System (Caja) and implicated former President Rafael Angel Calderón (1990-1994). Like Rodríguez, Calderón is still under investigation, though that hasn’t prevented him from publicly entertaining thoughts of a re-election bid.