The country is about to lose one of its more frank public servants.
Alicia Bogarín, a self-proclaimed crusader who created the Notary Administration, is scheduled to step down in November, partly because she is fed up with the workload and the lack of progress in clamping down on a growing number of unscrupulous notaries.
The agency she created 10 years ago regulates the nation’s notaries, who up to that point had no oversight other than the national Attorneys Association, a lawyer’s union.
“I started with one secretary and a very small budget,” she said. “From there, we grew to a staff of 23.”
It is a difficult time for the Notary Administration, with at least 200 notaries currently under criminal investigation, 50 for arranging fake marriages for organized crime figures, and 20 who have already been incarcerated on crimes ranging from drug trafficking to embezzlement to rape.
“Twenty-three employees are not sufficient to police roughly 10,000 active notaries,” Bogarín said.
At least five of the 50 notaries under investigation for fake marriages have already been suspended for six months, the agency’s only disciplinary recourse allowed under the law.
Amid the notary scandals, including rampant registry fraud – stealing someone’s property by forging a false power of attorney – the agency is also facing a political movement to privatize it in the hands of the Attorneys Association or a private law firm.
In 2006, a lawsuit filed in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) by attorney Enrique Rojas resulted in a ruling that the administration had no place in the judicial branch, where it is currently, and ordered it moved to the executive branch.
The ruling established a deadline of three years for the Legislative Assembly to move the agency. No action has been taken to do so, however, and no plans have been unveiled by the executive branch to incorporate it.
Up to this point, bills to strengthen penalties for corrupt notaries have gone nowhere in the Legislative Assembly and an omnibus crime bill presented by Vice President Laura Chinchilla before Easter made no mention of the problem.
In Costa Rica, most lawyers are notaries.
According to Bogarín, a new legal requirement was created in 2003 for lawyers to take classes to receive notary certification. Previous to that, all lawyers could practice as notaries.
Bogarín, who believes that part of the problem is the country has too many lawyers, sat down with The Tico Times to share her hopes and frustrations:
TT: Why did you create the Notary Administration?
AB: The exercise of the notary’s function was totally unregulated and undisciplined. It was thought we needed a stronger disciplinary regimen.
So has the problem gotten better or worse since the administration started its work?
It’s gotten worse because there is an oversupply of notaries (which leads some of them to illicit activities in order to pay the bills). The situation has created openings for new crimes. For example, arranging fake marriages was not a common thing for notaries to do until recent years. Many foreigners come and they want residency so this is one easy way they can go about getting residency. This is the method many foreigners are using to acquire their residency. Also, training is weak. Another problem comes from the duality that many are lawyers and notaries, one a private function and the other a public service, which can lead to a conflict of interest.
How bad is the problem of corrupt notaries?
The problem of their involvement with organized crime lately is a matter of public record and it’s been out in all the newspapers. It’s also a matter of human trafficking and sex slavery. There are many notaries that are engaged in this.We are sharing information with the Judicial Investigation Police and the prosecutor’s office and there are active investigations and disciplinary proceedingsagainst at least 200 notaries. The notary is civilly and criminally responsible.
Of the nation’s roughly 10,000 notaries, what percentage are criminals?
We are bidding out a study, which will yield statistics on just what percentage of the country’s notaries are corrupt or at least engaging in inappropriate acts. But if you ask me in general terms about the country’s roughly 10,000 notaries, how many are correctly performing their work, I could estimate about 3,500 to 4,000, because the rest don’t comply with their duty and they are engaging in crimes.
What are the most common crimes notaries are involved in?
Registry fraud and property theft is No. 1, then money laundering, fake marriages and fake documents.
Why is action so slow on disciplining notaries and the penalties so weak? (It can take up to a year or more.)
It’s a very long process.We have only one judge (who has) 3,500 cases. It is a huge judicial delay. We just don’t have enough resources. The laws are weak. I would like to see corrupt notaries lose their certification permanently.
What does the (2006) court ruling mean?
We have one year and two months to move to the executive branch.Unfortunately, this depends on the Legislative Assembly passing a new law. They need to decide where the administration is going and it’s going to be impossible to do so within the next year and two months (to comply with the court order).
What do you think of the movement to privatize your agency?
There is a very strong movement coming from the Attorneys Association, which to me seems a bad idea because the association is political, with appointments of two years and private control over the terrible state of affairs that exists right now with notaries would be incorrect and it would lead to more impunity. The association is more there to defend their members.