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4 of 6 US accused agree to go to jail

Plea bargaining in US court in Piarco project scandal

By Curtis Williams

Four of the six Americans accused of involvement in defrauding the Government of Trinidad and Tobago of tens of millions of dollars from the Piarco Airport Project have agreed to go to prison.

Serving time in jail is part of a plea agreement, which was yesterday presented to Justice Paul Huck in the United States District Court in the Southern District of Florida .

Armando Paz, former chief financial officer of the American company Calmaquip, is the uncle of another accused, Raul Gutierrez. Paz pleaded guilty to 12 counts of bank fraud .

Rene Diaz de Villegas, former vice-president of finance and Gutierrez’ former brother-in-law, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and transporting money obtained by fraud.

Richard Lacle of Aruba pleaded guilty to structuring the transaction to evade reporting while Leonardo Arturo Mora-Rodriguez of Miami, told the court he was guilty of conspiracy to transport money taken by fraud.

In the plea agreement, the four men will be sentenced to prison, depending on the outcome of a pre-sentence investigation to be done by a probation officer.

The US government has agreed to reduced prison terms for the men, but only if they cooperate fully in ongoing investigations and prosecutions involving the Piarco Airport scandal.

In the case of Rene Diaz de Villegas, he has also agreed to go undercover for the US government to “conduct and negotiate with others suspected and believed to be involved in criminal misconduct under the supervision of and in compliance with law enforcement officers and agents.”

He has also agreed to surrender all his properties and serve between 33 to 41 months in prison.

It was alleged that Calmaquip Inc, one of the major suppliers to the Piarco Airport project, and others conspired to fix the 1996 bid process to secure construction contracts.

As part of the conspiracy, Birk Hillman, the firm overseeing the construction, allegedly rewrote the bid requirements to eliminate competitors.

Those involved in the scheme even arranged for a shadow company to submit an exaggerated bid, so that Calmaquip’s bid would appear more competitive.

Birk Hillman had estimated the loading bridges and other equipment would total US$15 million, the indictment says.

But the Airports Authority accepted Calmaquip’s US$30 million bid, because it was nearly US $5 million lower than its rivals’.

It is alleged that Northern Construction bid US$20 million for a phase of the construction originally estimated to cost US$10 million.

Calmaquip executives and other defendants then used a series of offshore accounts to launder millions of dollars they pocketed themselves, or paid as bribes and kickbacks, the indictment charges.

According to the United States grand jury, in a web of corruption, it was discovered that Calmaquip and another company, SDCC, both shared directors and operated out of the same offices.

They were the only bidders on Package 13 of the airport contract, and Calmaquip was awarded the contract, since its bid was lower than SDCC, even though it was inflated by US$90 million.

So overpriced was Package 13, it is alleged Calmaquip made up false invoices for the purchase of pieces of equipment, including escalators.

In the plea agreement, Leonardo Arturo Mora-Rodriguez may also lose his American citizenship, since his status will have to be determined by US Immigration.

In addition to serving time, the men have agreed to the forfeiture of their properties, including cash.

Richard Lacle did not have to give up his properties, but he agreed to surrender two homes in return for the right to decide in which prison facility he would serve his time.

©2005-2006 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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4 of 6 US accused agree to go to jail
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