(Adds details of statement from U.S. Attorney’s office)
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Dec 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the offices of Puerto Rico’s Highways and Transportation Authority (HTA) on Wednesday, taking documents and arresting the organization’s treasurer for alleged bribery in programs using federal funds.
The treasurer, Silvino Cepeda Ortiz, was arrested at his place of work “without incident” in connection with a bribery-for-payment scheme involving three unnamed HTA contractors, the U.S. Attorney’s office said
The raid was the second against one of Puerto Rico’s indebted public corporations in little over a week. On Nov. 25, the FBI seized documents and computer equipment at the offices of the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (ASA). No arrests were made.
The recent enforcement activity raises questions over governance at the corporations that have accumulated over $20 billion in debt. It also comes as the commonwealth tries to raise up to $2.9 billion to repay $2.2 billion that HTA owes the Government Development Bank (GDB), the financing arm of Puerto Rico’s government.
HTA’s Executive Director Javier Ramos Hernandez said the HTA has suspended Cepeda Ortiz. “We won’t tolerate actions that go against the public well-being,” Ramos Hernandez said.
Cepeda Ortiz could not be reached for comment and did not respond to a message sent to his Facebook page.
An FBI spokesman in Puerto Rico, Moises Quinones, told local radio station Noti Uno that the FBI had placed a person in custody after the raid on HTA.
During a meeting with a company official in September, Cepeda Ortiz allegedly requested a bribe of $10,000 for making funds available to pay an invoice of $1.98 million to a second company, the U.S. Attorney’s office said.
During a meeting on Dec. 1 with company officials he received $5,000 in cash and agreed to receive the third payment on Wednesday. The payment was made directly before Cepeda Ortiz was arrested, the U.S. Attorney’s office said.
Puerto Rico’s economy is floundering and it has over $70 billion in debt. At least one public corporation, the electric authority PREPA, is expected to default on over $9 billion.
The HTA has over $7 billion in debt and can default under a controversial law passed earlier this year.
Puerto Rico’s Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla referred to the “irresponsibility” of loans made to the HTA in a speech on Sunday night. Last week the governor threatened to shut down the island’s transport system - including the HTA - because of a dispute over increasing a tax needed to help fix HTA’s finances.
“We are now confronting the consequences of the irresponsibility of these loans that were taken, situations so serious that it threatens to shut the operations of the HTA and important public works projects,” the governor said.
HTA Bonds traded sharply lower on Wednesday. Bonds maturing in 2015 and carrying a 4 percent coupon traded with an average price of 88.175 cents on the dollar, down from 94.998 when the bonds last traded on Nov. 21. (Reporting by Reuters in San Juan; Writing by Edward Krudy; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Shumaker)