FBI agents arrested Puerto Rico Sen. Abel Nazario and seven other people who were government employees Wednesday morning for allegedly conspiring to commit fraud.
They all face bribery charges for mishandling federal funds in the municipality of Yauco while Nazario was mayor from 2000 to 2016, a year before Hurricane Maria struck the island and killed at least 2,975 people.
Nazario allegedly conspired to have employees bill the municipality for federal funds while working on his senatorial campaign, as well as on other pro-statehood party members' campaigns, according to a federal indictment.
"That's totally false," said Nazario about the charges, after pleading not guilty and being released without bail.
"I'm innocent," he told reporters outside a court.
Puerto Rico's District Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow said in a statement that this "prosecution serves as a warning to other public officials involved in these types of schemes that they will be punished, and as a promise to taxpayers that such violations of the public trust will not be tolerated.”
This is the second time federal authorities have arrested Nazario. In Sept. 2018, he was accused of defrauding his employees while serving as Yauco's mayor. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, his employees were required to work two voluntary hours a day — which the Department of Labor identified as a violation — and Nazario then agreed to pay almost $600,000 in back wages to 177 employees. Though Nazario had said he wouldn't retaliate against the workers, the municipality withheld wages according to authorities, the AP reported. Nazario is awaiting trial in that case.
Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz asked for Nazario’s resignation shortly after his arrest Wednesday, saying in a Facebook post in Spanish that while the situation "is unfortunate for him and his family, it's even worse for the people of Puerto Rico who watch these events with anguish that lacerate the trust in government institutions.”
Nazario said he believes the charges against him have not affected his work in the Senate and have not diminished people's trust in the government.
"That's why I'm addressing this in front of you and in front of the people," said Nazario in Spanish. "I'm never going to resign. I'm innocent and innocent people do not resign. Only people who are afraid resign."
Nazario refused to resign amid calls from fellow pro-statehood legislators such as Ángel "Chayanne" Martínez, Henry Neumann and Larry Seilhamer, asking him to step down.
As a result, Rivera Schatz filed a complaint to the Senate's ethics commission to look into Nazario's case.
Edgardo Rosado, a spokesperson for Nazario, said that the senator is innocent, adding that the arrest is tied to an ongoing federal case involving people accused of charging the U.S. territory’s government for services that were never provided, according to the AP. Other suspects have already been accused in that case, including a former director of the Puerto Rico Senate Government Affairs Office.
The latest arrests come as Puerto Rico recovers from a monthslong political unrest that led to the resignation of the island’s previous governor, Ricardo Rosselló, in August after hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans participated in mass protests spurred in part by anger over corruption.
In July, two former officials from Rosselló's administration, former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and former Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration head Ángela Ávila-Marrero were arrested along with four other people on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors.