On Wednesday, a federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico returned an eight-count indictment against legislator Nelson Del Valle Colon (Del Valle Colon), a member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, as well as two of his employees, Nickolle Santos-Estrada (Santos) and her mother Mildred Estrada-Rojas (Estrada), for their alleged participation in a multi-year theft, bribery, and kickback conspiracy.
The indictment charges Del Valle Colon, Santos, and Estrada with conspiracy as well as theft, bribery, and kickbacks concerning programs receiving federal funds. Del Valle Colon is facing two additional counts of honest services wire fraud, and one count of obstruction of justice for destroying data on his cell phone.
According to the allegations in the indictment, in early 2017, Del Valle Colon fraudulently inflated the salaries of Santos, Estrada, and another individual for no legitimate reason, and corruptly agreed that out of their inflated paychecks, the employees would keep a portion for themselves and kick back the other portion, generally between approximately $500 and $2,000, to Del Valle Colon.
“Puerto Rico legislator Nelson Del Valle Colon and his employees allegedly embarked on a years-long conspiracy to enrich themselves by embezzling funds and using bribes and kickbacks to defraud the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “As this case shows, the Department of Justice and our law enforcement partners are committed to holding elected officials accountable for corrupt conduct.”
“Public corruption destroys the trust we have in our elected officials, which is essential for democracy to thrive,” said U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow for the District of Puerto Rico. “In this case, the citizens of Puerto Rico were betrayed by legislator Del Valle Colon, an elected official who abused his position for personal gain, and who must be held accountable for violating one of the basic tenets of public trust, that is, serving his constituents with integrity and honesty. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, and our law enforcement partners, will continue to relentlessly investigate and prosecute anyone who tries to undermine our system of government.”
“As we have said numerous times, public corruption is and will continue to be a priority for the FBI,” said Special Agent in Charge Rafael Riviere of the FBI’s San Juan Field Office. “May today be a reminder that we will not tolerate corruption and we will act swiftly to remove those who would violate public trust. Special thanks to our DOJ partners for their support of our mission.”
The indictment further alleges that the defendants used a variety of means to transfer the kickbacks to Del Valle Colon. Allegedly, Santos, Estrada, and the other individual would sometimes transfer cash by hand to Del Valle Colon. The defendants would also sometimes transfer kickbacks in approximately $500 increments to Del Valle Colon using ATH Móvil, a mobile phone application that allows individuals who bank at certain financial institutions to send money to each other through an interface on their cell phones.
The honest services wire fraud counts against Del Valle Colon involve WhatsApp messages sent by Del Valle Colon that furthered the scheme to defraud and deprive the citizens and the government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico of their right to Del Valle Colon’s honest services.
The indictment also charges Del Valle Colon with obstruction of justice. After becoming aware of the investigation into illegal activities at his legislative office in or about July 2020, Del Valle Colon deleted data on his cell phone including communications between himself and Santos, and between himself and Estrada.