De Castro Font trial slated for March
Superior Court Judge Isabel Llompart rejected the former lawmaker’s request for a new lawyer and his bid to get her recused from the case.
Llompart slated a status hearing for January 20 and penciled in the start of the long-delayed trial for March 7, setting aside time until March 30 to wrap up the proceedings.
Defense attorney Hiram Sepúlveda sought additional time to file a motion for reconsideration and to be excused from the case. Prosecutor Guillermo Garau opposed the request.
“I’m his third lawyer and the first assigned by the court. There is a lack of confidence and communication with the defendant,” Sepúlveda said.
Llompart designated Sepúlveda to represent De Castro Font in October after tossing his previous defense attorney, Manny Suárez Jr, for allegedly violating court orders.
De Castro Font, who has already pleaded guilty to related charges in federal court, was set to go on trial on the 95 local counts he faced in October. The change of defense lawyer meant yet more delays.
Suárez took over the defense in April after De Castro Font’s previous lawyer, Lydia Lizarribar, withdrew from the case after her client asked a federal judge to drop her from those proceedings.
De Castro Font was sentenced in May to five years in federal prison in connection with the nearly two dozen corruption counts he pleaded guilty to more than two years ago.
U.S. District Judge Francisco Besosa tacked on three years of probation, but said the prison term could be reduced if De Castro Font’s cooperation with federal authorities leads to other corruption convictions. Prosecutors had sought a nine-year prison sentence.
De Castro Font, 47, was hit with a flood of federal corruption charges stemming from a pay-for-play scheme he orchestrated at the Capitol, including during his time as the head of the powerful Senate Rules & Calendar Committee, where he essentially served as gatekeeper in determining which bills would reach the floor for votes. He still faces dozens of local charges related to the scheme, in which he allegedly took thousands of dollars in bribes from businesspeople to steer favorable legislation or kill unfavorable bills.
Local prosecutors have said that immunity was extended to at least two witnesses, and four people involved in the corruption scheme were referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. While the SIP Office prosecutes former and current public officials, Justice would handle the prosecutions of private citizens involved in the De Castro Font corruption scheme.
De Castro was accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for promises to block or advance certain bills as chair of the powerful Senate Rules & Calendar Committee, and to damage the interests of business owners if they refused to pay. A federal grand jury indictment alleged that he used the money to pay for expenses including credit card bills, home utilities and clothing. It also alleged that he asked a person with business before the Senate to pay half his sister’s salary at an advertising firm.
De Castro Font’s words have already led to the federal corruption convictions of former NPP Sen. Héctor Martínez and businessman Juan Bravo, and speculation has lingered that more indictments may be on the horizon.
Former FBI Special Agent in Charge Luis Fraticelli said in May that federal authorities are investigating Puerto Rican political figures and arrests could be made before the 2012 election.
In January 2009, De Castro Font pleaded guilty to 21 federal corruption charges — 20 counts of honest-services wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit extortion — related to his taking a series of payoffs in exchange for favorable legislative action during his years in the Senate and House of Representatives. In exchange, prosecutors recommended a prison sentence of nine years, versus the 20 years he was facing.