The New York Times
October 17, 2000

Inquiry Into Moneymaking at the Dominican Consulate

By JUAN FORERO


At the Dominican Republic's consulate in New York, there seemed to be fees for everything. And for Dominicans, the city's largest and poorest immigrant group, almost all of the fees seemed excessive.

Cartas de ruta, common travel documents, cost $75. The fee for the right to transport a body back to the Dominican Republic for burial was as much as $150. Shipping high-end items like appliances required an administrative charge of $190. If it was a car, there was a $200 authorization fee. There were special stamps needed on documents and photographs that could only be taken by the consulate.

The scene at the consulate in Times Square had never rested easy with New York's booming Dominican population, but by last year the levies had become so varied and expensive that a certain outrage began to take hold.

There were, after all, by then more than 50 fees for assorted services and some of the highest prices anywhere for necessities like passports $200, more than double what other countries in the Americas charged. (A United States passport, for example, costs $60 for Americans 16 and older and $40 for those under 16.) The consulate even required its officials to fill out forms for certain services forms that applicants could have filled out themselves and then charged for it.

For decades, the Dominican consulate had served as an unusual, highly effective kind of moneymaking machine, one that could, in a good month, take in $600,000.

"The consulate was supposed to be there to serve us," said Juan Abreu, a bodega owner who faced mounds of paperwork and high fees when he tried to transport the body of a friend back home for burial. "That's what it was created for. But everything there was money, money, money."

The suspicion that the consulate's ever-escalating fees were improperly abusive long the belief among the hundreds of immigrants who filed through the office at 1501 Broadway six days a week is the focus of a formal investigation by the newly elected Dominican government. Federal prosecutors in Santo Domingo, the capital, are looking into how the consulate's revenues were spent and whether Bienvenido Pérez, the consul general from 1996 to 1999, manipulated prices to benefit himself.

The Dominican government official now in charge of the country's consular affairs division summed up his appraisal of the consulate's recent conduct with scorn: "The idea," said the official, José Alejandro Ayuso, "was that anyone entering the consulate would go out without a cent in their pockets."

According to current and former consulate officials, as well as Dominican politicians both here and in Santo Domingo, the revenues generated at the office went not only to the central government, but also to the country's president and various senior political party officials. The consul general, too, was allowed to keep a percentage of the fees taken in by his office. The arrangement, while perhaps not known to the public, was widely accepted as customary and appropriate in Dominican political and governmental circles.

State Department officials in the United States say it is impossible to say whether the practices of the Dominican office are, in whole or part, carried out in the consulates of other countries. But interviews with knowledgeable American diplomatic officials suggest that the Dominican operation in New York, one of 17 Dominican consular offices in the United States and Puerto Rico, was hardly typical. Now, though, the Dominican government's inquiry is seeking to determine whether Mr. Pérez's operation of the consulate, and the money he took from it, went beyond what was proper.

"It is evident that the consul general's office has been a fountain of wealth," Virgilio Bello Rosa, the new federal prosecutor in the Dominican Republic, said in a telephone interview from Santo Domingo. "It's evident the consul has a right to take some of that money. What we need to do is see if it was done legally or outside the law."

Already, the new Dominican government has pledged to clean up its New York consulate, with plans including random inspections and a computer system that will allow the foreign ministry to track revenues, said Mr. Ayuso, who has been named by President Hipólito Mejía to take charge of consular affairs.

The government also says it plans to lower some fees and control the power of the consul general, ensuring that a larger percentage of revenues do not simply wind up with top party officials.

"Now the consul doesn't have to give to the president of the republic, nor to the vice president, nor to the secretaries, nor to the financing of campaigns," President Mejía said in an interview. "Now the consul does not have to siphon money off from his countrymen."

Mr. Pérez, 44, who was removed from the consulate last January but has not been formally charged, denied any wrongdoing or that he enriched himself during his tenure. He has since moved back to the Dominican Republic.

"If you look at all the consulates, the one that was most open, most transparent, was ours," Mr. Pérez said in a telephone interview. "We are at peace because we know we acted openly and honestly."

However the government's investigation turns out, the role of the consulate, both historically and under Mr. Pérez, provides a window into how its importance to central government leaders grew markedly as the Dominican immigrant enclave in New York, long centered in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, ballooned from 70,000 people in 1970 to an estimated 600,000 today.

For the ruling party in Santo Domingo, recognizing the financial benefits of its consulate in New York was not hard given that the Dominican community, perhaps more so than any of the city's myriad immigrant groups, is characterized by an undying devotion to the homeland.

Dominicans, for example, follow politics back home so closely that candidates frequently visit New York to raise money and generate support. Dominicans here also maintain strong economic ties, sending hundreds of millions of dollars home each year, and return there in striking numbers to conduct business, vacation and scout for retirement homes.

The consulate thus found itself with a great degree of importance and money. With a nonstop clientele the consulate serves, on average, 300 people a day, six days a week daily revenues under Mr. Pérez ranged from $25,000 to $75,000, according to the consulate's daily audits, copies of which were shown to a reporter. Anywhere from a fifth to a third of that would be under the consul general's control.

Mr. Pérez was installed in the post after successfully running Leonel Fernández's 1996 presidential campaign in New York. The two had met back in the Dominican Republic through the Dominican Liberation Party, known as P.L.D., where Mr. Pérez had been a young devotee and Mr. Fernández a rising star.

When Mr. Pérez took office in 1996, the money-generating operation at the consulate had been in place for more than 30 years. But Mr. Pérez proved more adept than his predecessors at making the most of his opportunities, according to interviews with more than 40 former and current central government officials, consular employees and P.L.D. operatives.

Mr. Pérez quickly increased fees, according to the consulate's financial records. Cartas de ruta, forms that allow Dominicans without passports to return home, went from $10.71 to $75. The fee for transporting a body for burial doubled to $150.

"Dominicans all feel the same about this, it's pure robbery," said Isidora Piña, a consultant for Rivas Travel in Washington Heights. "It's taking our money for no reason."

According to both the consulate's financial records and a number of its current and former officers, Mr. Pérez had access to a range of fees. For every $200 passport, for example, $29 would go to the fund run by Mr. Pérez, the officials said. For every $110 charged for power of attorney documents, $75 came under Mr. Pérez's discretionary control, they said.

Take Sept. 24, 1996, when the consulate earned $27,323. A consulate official who worked under Mr. Pérez said more than $6,000 of that went to pay the office's costs, including salaries; $16,548 went to the central government. The rest, $4,452, went to Mr. Pérez, the official said.

Mr. Pérez said those former consular officials who accused him of making thousands of dollars daily were either political enemies or ignorant of consular finances. He acknowledged receiving 25 percent of revenues, but only from the nine fees paid on items shipped to the Dominican Republic. He denied raising the fees at all.Mr. Pérez said most of his income came from his $1,200-a-week salary.

But to the Dominicans in New York, who have a median household income of $20,000, the lowest of all major immigrant groups in New York, the costs hit hard. Among the most hated was a $100 parental authorization form, which was required for children to travel alone.

"I didn't like this abuse, and I did think it was abuse on the part of the authorities," said Lourdes Luciano de Valdéz, who complained to American officials that the Dominican authorities prevented her daughter from returning to New York two summers ago because the authorization fee had not been paid.

Even Dominican government officials shared that view. "It was a consulate that ran by its own rules," recalled Maria Cristina Aguiar, the former Dominican ambassador to the United Nations. "They had their own code. And in the end, they had exorbitant power."

Whether Mr. Pérez's management ultimately was merely typical or something worse, the former consul general clearly became a lightning rod for the anger of Dominicans in New York.

By mid-1999, the situation at the consulate had evolved into a scandal so glaring that it had become the subject of news coverage back home. The leading magazine in the Dominican Republic, Rumbo, had done an exposé on the consulate, and an issue rarely addressed there became a campaign theme. Many in the P.L.D. think the controversy hurt the party's bid to retain the presidency.

"The campaign against the consulate had a lot of force with the Dominicans in New York, and they play an important role sustaining the Dominican economy," said Jimmy Sierra, an aide to former President Fernández. "That caused the people to look badly at Bienvenido Pérez and the party, and this clearly was one of the reasons for the P.L.D.'s showing in the last elections."

Officials in the new government say a preliminary audit has shown the consulate was left with a $61,000 debt and a $20,000 credit card bill in Mr. Pérez's name.

President Mejía said in an interview that confidence can only be restored by curtailing the power of future consuls. "We're going to make sure he doesn't become a strongman," he said. "Right now, people don't believe in my consul, or in the last one or in the ones in the past. Why? The Dominican has lost credibility and faith in these officials."

Those who have long pushed for reforms say they are going to be carefully watching the consulate.

"They say, as it's expected, that the office will not be just for revenues but one that will offer services to the community," said Dinorah Cordero, who works with Dominican immigrants at the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights. "And we're expecting them to live up to the promises."

The new consul, Luis Eludis Pérez, said the lower fees and fewer travel requirements will take hold starting in January. He said the new consul general will still have the power to withhold some of the fee money to pay wages and other costs, but insisted that the rest would go to the central government's coffers.

"We want to keep our word," said the new consul, who headed the Mejía campaign in New York. "We want people to know we're not just for revenues, but also an agency serving the people."