When Patrick Joseph, the former head of Haiti’s state-owned telephone company, steps into a federal courtroom in downtown Miami on April 17, the future of Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, may take a decisive turn toward an American prison cell.
Security will be tight, especially since Joseph’s elderly father, the former head of Haiti’s central bank, was shot dead in Haiti last week. Two gunmen on motorcycles shot Venel Joseph as he was driving home, shortly after it became known his son was cooperating with an investigation of Aristide in Miami.
At his upcoming court date, Joseph, 50, will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez in a sweeping federal investigation of systematic corruption at the highest levels of the Haitian government during the Aristide administration. Both Joseph and his late father were named to their government posts by Aristide.
Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who remains popular among Haiti’s poor, was first elected president of Haiti in 1991 and after a tumultuous on-and-off tenure, was finally ousted from power in a 2004 coup. He returned to Haiti last March after a seven-year exile in South Africa.
Joseph faces up to 20 years in prison, and the forfeiture of close to $1 million, after pleading guilty last month to money-laundering conspiracy charges. After sentencing, he is expected to provide critical bribery evidence that could lead to an indictment of Aristide.
Since 2009 a Miami federal grand jury investigating corruption in Haiti has indicted a dozen defendants — including Haitians and Americans — under the federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits bribing government officials of foreign countries. Two of them, both American, have already received lengthy prison terms.
The U.S. government alleges the defendants participated in a scheme to commit bribery, wire fraud and money laundering. It is alleged a Miami-based telecommunications company paid more than $2.3 million for bribes to officials of Haiti Teleco, the national telephone company run by the younger Joseph. In exchange, it is alleged, discounted long-distance rates were provided for calls from Miami to Haiti.
Haiti Teleco has a monopoly over telephone land lines in Haiti. Until it was privatized in 2011, it was funded and controlled by the nation’s central bank, formerly run by Joseph’s late father.
There are many ways to help the people of Haiti, a devastated country struggling to survive the effects of a monster 2010 earthquake, killer tropical storms, and a continuing cholera epidemic that has killed more than 7,000 people.
The Obama administration is to be commended for its diligent efforts to help install and enforce a culture of honesty and respect for the law among Haiti’s top public officials.
Angel Castillo, Jr., a former reporter and editor for The New York Times and The Miami Herald, practices employment law in Miami.