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Ripple effect of Lifeline indictments in Tampa felt at El Salvador call center

Wilbert Perez-Velasquez is among 75 employees at a call center in Santa Ana, El Salvador, who were still working when it was shut down earlier this month. The company’s U.S. owner has been accused of cheating a federal phone subsidy program.
Wilbert Perez-Velasquez is among 75 employees at a call center in Santa Ana, El Salvador, who were still working when it was shut down earlier this month. The company’s U.S. owner has been accused of cheating a federal phone subsidy program.
Published Jul. 28, 2014

TAMPA — Workers at a call center in Santa Ana, El Salvador, remember visits from their rich American boss. The phone company owner would arrive in a motorcade, like a president, flanked by gun-waving guards.

"He thanked us for making him a millionaire," said employee Wilbert Perez-Velasquez, 40.

The U.S. Justice Department has another explanation for the wealth of Kevin Brian Cox, 38. He is one of three men accused in May of defrauding the federal Lifeline phone program of $32.4 million by exaggerating how many customers qualified for a subsidy because they were poor.

As the men await trial or a plea deal, the Justice Department has tied up their assets, including luxury cars, a yacht, bank accounts and real estate.

None of that seems like good news to people waiting on paychecks at Cox's call centers in El Salvador, where gas is more than $4 a gallon and employees make $400 to $600 a month if paid.

The money stopped coming after Cox was indicted April 9 by a federal grand jury in Tampa, employees say.

"We need to feed our families," worker Yashi Valmir Lima, 36, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "So please if you have any info, share it with us."

Karen Flores, single mother of a 4-year-old boy, says her utility bills are late and she can no longer afford public transportation to look for a job. She worked for Cox's company, Benson Communications, for nearly five years.

"It's hard to tell your kid that we have to eat the same thing every day because mommy is not getting paid," she wrote.

They and other employees describe Benson Communications as a company that once treated them well and allowed them to feel like a big family. They remember Cox throwing them lavish parties and taking a cake to the face in fun.

His attorney, Lance Wade, declined to comment on the call center pay situation, which has also caused problems at a sister center in capital city San Salvador.

In a May 12 motion, Wade said the government had been overly aggressive in seizing Cox's assets.

But such seizures are common. Bay area lawyer Jeff Brown, who practices in federal court and has no ties to the case, said the government holds assets that may later be subject to forfeiture on the assumption that defendants will try to hide them.

"The idea is that the government is the most trustworthy source," he said.

Cox of Tennessee faces multiple charges, including wire fraud and making false claims, as do two Florida men: Thomas E. Biddix of Melbourne and Leonard I. Solt of Land O'Lakes.

In varying degrees, the three Americans had ties to Associated Telecommunications Management Services. The focus of the federal investigation, it was a company with multiple subsidiaries that participated in the Lifeline program — at times illegally, the government alleges.

Lifeline, created under President Ronald Reagan and expanded under President George W. Bush to include mobile phone service, lowers phone bills for qualifying customers by $9.25 a month. It is funded by fees imposed on all landline and wireless subscribers. Phone companies screen the needy and seek reimbursement from the Universal Service Fund.

The criminal case against the three men is complex, built on an investigation that amassed more than a million records.

Little is made in court papers of Solt's role, except that ATMS acquired a company from the bay area man.

Biddix is described as president and part owner of ATMS.

Cox, the government alleges, received millions in fraud through ATMS and used it to purchase his current company, True Wireless, which provides Lifeline service to customers in Arkansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Texas.

True Wireless has not been indicted; however, the Federal Communications Commission filed papers in November seeking to fine it $5.5 million for irregularities involving Lifeline. That matter is pending.

True Wireless collects monthly Lifeline subsidies that range from $1.5 million to about $8 million, program records show.

Even in El Salvador, there is talk of the subsidy, each month fueling hopes of payment.

Until recently, Cox had call centers in both Santa Ana and San Salvador to service subscribers for True Wireless and Mid South Home Phone.

Lima answered calls in Santa Ana. Perez-Velasquez worked there in human resources. At one point, he estimates, the center employed about 350 people.

For several weeks, workers showed up even without pay. Some found jobs and left. But others stayed. When managers closed down the Santa Ana call center early this month, about 75 employees were still on the job, Perez-Velasquez said.

"The way we felt when our building was closed down and we did not get paid was betrayed and sad," Lima said.

"We worked with pride and we gave our all to this company."

Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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