San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ex-Caja Director Vargas sentenced to 4 years in prison on embezzlement charges

A Costa Rican court on Monday sentenced former Social Security System (Caja) President Eliseo Vargas to four years in prison on five counts of embezzlement.

Judges Mercedes Múñoz, Susan Wittmann and Francini Quesada also barred him from holding public office for four years. The next phase of the trial is an official reading of the sentence, which will determine if Vargas will be sent to prison to serve his sentence or be conditionally released.

Judges also sentenced microbiologist René Soto, who served as an adviser to Vargas, to three years in prison, but the court conditionally released him, meaning he will not serve the sentence behind bars. Both Soto and Vargas must pay ₡29 million (some $56,000) to the Caja for material damages.

Prosecuting attorneys said Vargas appointed Soto as an adviser with a government salary, but the latter did not perform work during the period in question, from June 2002 to April 2004.

Vargas’ lawyers said they will appeal the sentence. He has already been sentenced in two other criminal cases that brought five-year prison sentences. Those cases are under appeal.

The first embezzlement charges against Vargas stem from alleged favoritism of local pharmaceutical company Fischel in a public contract bid for the purchase of medical equipment by the Caja.

Former Costa Rican President Rafaél Ángel Calderón was sentenced to five years prison in the same case, becoming the first ex-president to be convicted in the country. However, like Soto, he was not ordered to serve his sentence behind bars and was conditionally released. Calderón’s wife, Gloria Bejarano Almada, was ordered to return $79,000 to the state.

In 2011, Vargas was sentenced to two years prison for his involvement in a case in which French telecommunications giant Alcatel used $800,000 allegedly to bribe public officials in 2001, including former President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, in order to gain cellphone infrastructure contracts. At the time, Vargas was a lawmaker for Rodríguez’s Social Christian Unity Party.

Rodríguez received a five-year sentence for corruption and financial wrongdoing, and became the second ex-president to be convicted in Costa Rica, although he too was conditionally released. He was forced to resign his post as secretary general of the Organization of American States in 2004, after serving just one month.

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