Though most of the principals in the massive embezzlement scheme involving Puerto Rico’s UTM Local 1740 had been convicted and sentenced, there was a major piece of unfinished business: the man at the top, former union President Jorge Aponte-Figueroa. On Monday, April 2, a federal jury made sure that he, too, joined the ranks of the guilty. After deliberating less than two hours, the jury convicted Aponte on a variety of counts, including embezzlement, conspiracy and money-laundering. He is scheduled to be sentenced in July and faces up to 15 years in prison.
Members of the dockworkers union, which is affiliated with the International Longshoremen’s Association, had filled the courtroom in support of their fallen leader. And as the verdict was read, many hardly could contain their shock. One woman burst into tears. But scrupulously gathered evidence proved too much in the eyes of the jury. Aponte had enriched himself by $1.9 million, part of a wider scheme in which various union officials and business associates had diverted some $10 million in union funds for personal use and underreported another $1.5 million in dues collections. Prosecutor Jose Ruiz described an arrangement in which Aponte directed his subordinates to divert 62 percent of union dues to businesses owned by his friends. “He was very clever,” remarked Ruiz. “He created a scheme in which he didn’t have to get directly involved.”
U.S. District Judge Perez Giminez ordered Aponte, 73, to be taken into custody immediately, fearing he or his allies might retaliate against witnesses. The judge stated that two witnesses who testified against him had expressed fear for their own and their families’ safety. Given the recent murder of Wally Rodriguez, a reform official of the scandal-ridden Puerto Rican water and sewer workers’ union, Union Independiente Autentica, such a fear hardly seems unjustified. Aponte, meanwhile, faces a second trial along with two other union officials on charges they defrauded the local health care plan. (Associated Press, 4/3/07).