Nicoya, Politics

Former mayor of Nicoya under investigation for allegedly misusing public funds to take 35 officials on vacation

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Translator: Arianna Hernandez

The Nicoya Prosecutor’s Office is investigating former Nicoyan mayor Marco Jimenez Muñoz for the crime of embezzlement after allegedly using the municipal budget during his time in office to pay for a vacation to Tambor Beach, in Puntarenas, for a group of municipal officials. This was confirmed to The Voice of Guanacaste by the municipality’s current mayor, Carlos Armando Martinez.

If the allegations are verified, in 2019, Jimenez hired Gollo Viajes tour company to organize an all-inclusive “vacation internship” for 35 employees at Hotel Barcelo Playa Tambor in order to celebrate Municipal Regimen Day (commemorated each year on August 31).

According to data from the Nicoyan mayor’s office, the tour cost the municipality more than ₡2.1 million (about $3,800 based on exchange rates at the time) between food, alcohol consumption and possibly a one-night stay at the hotel.

The alleged vacation trip happened in August 2019, just five months after the former mayor returned to his post after investigations into other possible crimes. Jimenez was suspended from duty for a year and a half (between June 2018 and March 2019), as a precautionary measure due to investigations of 21 other charges ranging from sexual abuse to other corruption crimes.

The Public Ministry press department confirmed that the new case is in the investigation phase, under file 20-001369-0414-PE. The current municipal administration also reported the incident to the Office of the Comptroller General of the Republic (CGR) and the Public Ethics Prosecutor’s Office.

Irregularities in the Contract

According to an internal investigation by the local government’s new administration, the trip planned to Playa Tambor was supposed to be paid for by three main income sources: the Municipality of Nicoya, the unions within the institution and the municipal employees who were going to attend the gathering.

However, the investigation uncovered that the former mayor allegedly hired Gollo Viajes solely in the name of the Municipality of Nicoya, under the concept of an all-inclusive “institutional get-together” at the hotel. Jimenez paid his institution’s third of the cost in 2019, but he didn’t do anything to make sure that the rest of the parties paid their part of the debt, according to data from the Municipality.

In 2020, a year after the trip, Gollo Viajes asked the new administration to pay the rest of the debt generated by Jimenez. After the new leaders received advice from the Comptroller’s Office, they decided to make the payment “as compensation.” The CGR also recommended that the municipality initiate a legal case against the former leader.

The Voice of Guanacaste contacted the former Nicoyan mayor about the matter. Although he stated that he didn’t know about the ongoing judicial investigation, he asserted that he didn’t break any law since he only authorized payment of the third that his office was responsible for during his administration.

Jimenez also suggested that the Prosecutor’s Office should investigate the current mayor for paying for those vacations. According to him, although there were problems with paying the debt during his administration, Martinez was the person who paid the remainder.

This situation happened in conjunction with a union and workers, where we agreed in accordance with the collective agreement (of the Municipality of Nicoya) to be able to carry out this activity with municipal officials…. We had a problem in the amount that the unions and the workers had to give, but the municipality only gave a third. The current [mayor, Martinez,] paid the rest. I don’t know under what terms, but where the crime is is paying what is established in the purchase order,” Jimenez stated.

He also added, “It seems to me that the current mayor doesn’t know much about legislation and has gone to file a complaint in which I believe that the one who will end up being denounced is him. He was the one who paid the debt with Gollo without being authorized to do so.”

Martinez affirmed that he authorized payment of the rest of the debt with the tour operator, following advice from the Comptroller’s Office. In its report, the CGR concluded that the new municipal administration should pay the remaining balance in the form of compensation since the case meets the necessary jurisprudential requirements: irregular contract in the name of the municipality, existence of good faith and the provision of services carried out by the contracted company.

Illegality of paying for employee vacations

Jimenez would have justified these vacations under the budget category of “employee training” but neither this heading nor any other in municipal finances includes the possibility of using public resources to pay for leisure activities or tourism trips of this type.

According to municipal manuals, the training category can only be used for “the organization of congresses, seminars, seminars, talks, symposiums and courses.”

Neither this public institution, nor any other, is legally authorized to pay vacation services for its officials using public funds,” the current mayor told The Voice.

Since Jimenez awarded the contract to Gollo Viajes, a company dedicated exclusively to doing recreational trips (as described by the company itself during the contracting process), the new administration rules out the possibility that the excursion to Tambor Beach was used for some type of work activity .

Martinez affirmed that his predecessor never showed real interest in carrying out work activities during the trip during the contracting process, since the document itself said that the company providing the service only sells “vacation and recreation trips.”

In the same files, any action or training plan on issues of municipal interest is missing,” reported the mayor.

According to Gollo Viajes’ website, it is a tour operator from the Unicomer Group that offers  tourism services that can be paid up front or in payments with interest rates. In 2019, the company offered a travel catalog with destinations inside and outside of Costa Rica, personally adapted to the needs and travel plans of each client.

At that time, the prices for Hotel Barcelo Playa Tambor ranged from ₡60,000 to ₡150,000 per night (about $110 to $275 based on exchange rates at the time), depending on the package offered by the tour operator.

On August 17 of this year, the new municipal administration presented a report on the subject to the Nicoya Municipal Council, in response to the request for information made by multiple council members in August 2020. During that session, the council members did not discuss the content more in depth.

Martinez affirmed that both the Relations Board and the CGR are analyzing the case’s details in order to “determine what is appropriate” against the officials who participated in the gathering. Because the case is still under investigation, it isn’t possible to find out if these officials still work at the municipality.