TRB president, member hit with ethical complaints
Former Supreme Court Judge José Andréu-García filed Monday separate complaints before the Puerto Rico Justice Department and the Government Ethics Office against Telecommunications Regulatory Board President Sandra Torres over her alleged participation in cases related to Puerto Rico Telephone, her former employer.
Andréu-García, who has been representing consumers in a civil case against PRT — which does business as Claro — for more than a decade, also filed a similar complaint against TRB Associate Member Gloria Escudero, who also retired from the telecom carrier prior to being named to the agency.
During a news conference Monday, Andréu-García — flanked by attorneys Harold Vicente and José Andréu-Fuentes — said that aside from representing PRT in legal cases prior to her appointment in November 2009 to the TRB, Torres is currently receiving a retirement pension from the carrier.
In speaking with reporters, Andréu-García said Torres has violated the Government Ethics Law and legal ethical canons by continuing to intervene in class-action suits consumers have filed against PRT that are currently pending consideration by the TRB, even though she recused herself from doing so given her previous ties with the PRT.
“In fact, because of the clear conflict of interest between the PRT and the TRB president, she has had to inhibit herself formally and in writing from participating in litigation against the PRT pending before the board,” said the former judge, who is one of the attorneys in a long-standing class-action suit filed in November 2003 over touch-tone fees that could add up to $250 million in reimbursements for the plaintiffs.
A group seeking reimbursement for touch-tone service fees charged since 1996 initially filed case in Superior Court, based on the premise that the monthly charge was illegal. After running its course through the courts, in January 2007, the case was remanded to the TRB, becoming the first class-action suit turned over to the agency.
For years, the case has been sitting idle at the agency, but last week a third-party judge hired to analyze and rule on the matter allegedly presented his decision to Torres, but Andréu-García said she has refused to make it public or turn it over to the case attorneys.
“Why do you think that is? When we asked for a copy she told us that information was confidential and ordered that it be withheld from the attorneys,” he said, suggesting the decision was likely not favorable for PRT.
“We further believe her appointment is null, as it violates the law because the law says that a person who has a direct or indirect interest or a contractual relationship with a telecom company could not be a member of the TRB and she has a pension for years of service with PRT, and that pension is a contractual relationship,” he said, extending the same argument to Escudero, who also retired from the PRT prior to being confirmed to her position at the agency in October 2011.
“We asked the Justice Secretary to investigate her [Escudero] as well,” he said.
Senate to probe accusations
A few hours following the news conference, Sen. Ramón Luis Nieves confirmed the Banking, Insurance and Telecommunications Committee, which he heads, would look into the claims against Torres.
“We’ve received disturbing information about alleged conflicts of interest in the TRB from its president. Particularly, allegations that she has somehow intervened in cases related to the PRT,” Nieves said. “Torres was a lawyer and head of the PRT’s Legal Division, so that intervention, if proven, would be inappropriate and unethical.”
Nieves said he would call a public hearing to clarify the allegations made against Torres.
Torres welcomes investigation
In a written statement issued late Monday, Torres — whose seven-year tenure is up November 2016 — welcomed any Legislative investigation into her performance as head of the agency, ensuring that she has “worked with professionalism, uprightness and integrity from the first day I took the reins of the agency that oversees Puerto Rico’s telecommunications and cable industry.”
“Despite the imputations and referrals filed against me today, I feel calm because during these past three years I have faithfully fulfilled the rules and obligations of my post,” she said. “Upon arriving to the TRB, I requested two opinions from the Ethics Office providing the list of all cases in which I participated, directly or indirectly, during my employment in PRT.”
One of the opinions, she said, had to do with the issue of her pension, which Ethics determined is protected under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which means that in the worst of scenarios in which the board were to make a decision that pushed PRT to bankruptcy, the pension plan of would be protected.
Torres further noted that the Senate passed judgment on her appointment and “unanimously confirmed me, including a vote from [then Senator] current Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla.”
Regarding the allegations from the attorneys, Torres seemed to brush them off by saying they were not sworn statements or based on fact.
“We have found it particularly surprising that such experienced attorneys have tried to access a report that has not been evaluated by the two Board members who are seeing the case,” she said. “The historical practice in administrative law is that the hearing officer’s report is disclosed after the administrative agency has passed judgment on it.”