U.S. executive gets 15 years for Haiti telecom bribery

U.S. executive gets 15 years for Haiti telecom bribery
26 October 2011

Joel Esquenazi

(Reuters) - The former president of a U.S.-based telecommunications company has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for a scheme to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to officials of a Haitian state-owned phone company.

The sentence given on Tuesday to Joel Esquenazi, 52, former head of Florida-based Terra Telecommunications Corp., was the longest ever imposed in a prosecution involving the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida said on Wednesday. In the same sentencing ruling, U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez handed down a 7-year jail term to Terra's former executive vice president Carlos Rodriguez, 55.

Esquenazi and Rodriguez were convicted in August of a scheme to commit bribery and money laundering. They were also ordered by Martinez to forfeit $3.09 million. Prosecutors said that from November 2001 through March 2005 their company paid more than $890,000 to shell companies to be used for bribes to Haitian government officials at Telecommunications d'Haiti S.A.M. (Haiti Teleco).

Haiti Teleco, which was privatized in 2010 and is now controlled by a Vietnamese military-run company Viettel, was the sole provider of land line telephone service in the Caribbean nation. Terra held contracts with Teleco that allowed the company's customers to place calls to Haiti.

"This sentence ... is a stark reminder to executives that bribing government officials to secure business advantages is a serious crime with serious consequences," U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in a statement.

U.S. prosecutors said that Terra sought to obtain business advantages through the bribes, including preferred telecoms rates, and to maintain the company's position in Haiti. "A company's profits should be driven by the quality of its goods and services, and not by its ability and willingness to pay bribes to corrupt officials to get business," Breuer said.

Four other individuals, including a former director for international affairs for Haiti Teleco, were previously convicted and sentenced for their roles in the bribery scheme. U.S. officials said the investigation into the case was ongoing and Haiti's government was assisting with the probe.

(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Editing by Will Dunham)
Source: Reuters.