The Loan

Former state representative Victor Cuevas pled guilty yesterday to conspiracy to commit bank fraud.

                            Story and Photographs By John Murray

   A two-year federal probe into the financial dealings of former state representative Victor Cuevas hinged on the technicality of whether $7000 was a gift or loan from a life-long friend. The money was used to qualify for a special HUD loan that enabled Cuevas to purchase a home in Bristol with less money invested upfront. The key element of getting the mortgage was having a friend or family member gift him $7000.

   “A broker suggested I could qualify for the loan if I borrowed $7000 from a friend, and then repaid the friend after I got the loan,” Cuevas said. “At the time I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

   As Victor Cuevas stood before Judge Jeffrey Meyer yesterday morning inside the Federal Courthouse in New Haven in the case of  “The United States of America vs Victor Cuevas”, he knew it was a big deal now. Cuevas was an elected official when he borrowed the $7000 from his best friend, Geraldo Reyes Jr., and misrepresented that it was a gift, and that Reyes was his cousin. Reyes has not been charged with a crime, but Cuevas was popped with a felony charge of  “conspiracy to commit bank fraud.”

   To take full responsibility, and to avoid others being dragged into a mess of his own creation, Cuevas waived his rights to an indictment and trial yesterday, and pled guilty to the charge.

   “I made a mistake,” Cuevas told The Waterbury Observer last night, “I’m charged with a felony for borrowing $7000 from a friend to qualify for a HUD loan, and then paying my friend back. If I hadn’t paid him back, there would have been no crime.”

   Cuevas’s defense attorney, Martin Minnella, stood on the marble steps outside the Federal Courthouse yesterday afternoon and said the case was, “Much to do about nothing.”

   “If Victor had not been a state representative we wouldn’t be standing here today,” Minnella said, “and this is why it’s so hard to get people to run for public office. They become targets.”

Victor Cuevas and his best friend and campaign manager Geraldo Reyes Jr were on top of the world election night 2012.

   The FBI began investigating Cuevas two years ago when a complaint was filed by his Republican opponent, Jack Alseph, that Cuevas was living out of the district he represented. Cuevas had purchased a home in Bristol with the HUD loan and was representing the 75th District in Waterbury. Cuevas said he was having a difficult time in his personal life after a long-term relationship broke up, and he was planning an exit strategy from Waterbury, and politics. In his plan Geraldo Reyes would be the man to replace him in Hartford.

   Cuevas said while he represented the 75th District he continued to live in Waterbury at his sister’s house, and stayed in his Bristol home on weekends to get out of the city. An investigation into where Cuevas lived – complete with an FBI tail and the Feds going through Cuevas’s mailbox - was inconclusive, but during its probe the FBI found a gift letter signed by Cuevas and Reyes.

Until he resigned in November 2015 Gerry Reyes was a key member of the O'Leary Administration.

   At the time Reyes loaned the money to Cuevas he was an aide to Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary. Reyes said his friend asked to borrow $7000 and he loaned Cuevas the money. Reyes said he signed a piece of paper Cuevas placed in front of him and never read the details. Reyes trusted Cuevas to repay him the money, and thirty days later Cuevas gave him a check for $7000, and Reyes thought the matter was closed.

   And it was closed until late November 2015 when the FBI called and wanted to talk to him. Reyes met three FBI agents at a picnic table in Library Park and they asked if he had ever given or loaned money to Victor Cuevas. Reyes said that he had loaned Cuevas $7000 and he had been repaid. The federal agents then produced a copy of the gift letter and asked Reyes if he had signed it.

   Yes, Reyes told them, he had signed it without reading it. The agents then explained what he had signed and that he could be charged with a felony. Reyes said he concluded the meeting by telling the agents he didn’t believe he had done anything wrong. He had loaned money to a friend, and he had been repaid.

   But Reyes was shaken by the visit and met with Mayor O’Leary the following day to explain what had happened and to offer his resignation. Reyes didn’t want any mistake he or Cuevas made to reflect badly on the mayor’s office, and he offered to resign immediately. O’Leary didn’t accept the resignation and suggested they sit tight and see what happened with the federal probe. One week later, after consulting with political advisors, O’Leary abruptly accepted his resignation, and Reyes was out of an influential job inside City Hall.

   And for the next three months the only one impacted by the federal probe was Geraldo Reyes. He was out of a job for loaning Cuevas $7000, while Cuevas was still serving as state representative. Reyes eventually accepted a part-time gig helping to develop special projects at The Waterbury Observer (The Gathering, and Project Clear Water), and explored full time employment options in greater Waterbury.

   In mid-March the FBI confronted Cuevas and brought him in for questioning and an exhaustive multi-hour lie detector test. Cuevas said he had a confrontation with FBI agent Jeff Waterman and was repeatedly asked to provide information about Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, Governor Dannell Malloy and Speaker of the House Brandon Sharkey. Cuevas said he had nothing to tell the federal agents other than openly admitting he had borrowed $7000 from Gerry Reyes and repaid him.

By many accounts Victor Cuevas was a dynamic legislator in Hartford for four years. His top trait? Fearlessness. He once knocked on Governor Malloy's door to discuss issues.

   With the FBI tailing his movements and poring over years of banking statements, Cuevas said he decided to resign from the state legislature to hopefully remove the bulls-eye from his back. A special election was scheduled for April 27th to replace Cuevas in the legislature, and the strongest candidate in the South End was none other than Reyes, who was still unsure if the FBI planned on charging him with a crime for loaning Cuevas the $7000.

   After days of soul searching Reyes chose to move into the spotlight and take his chances. Polling suggested even if the Feds arrested him, he would handily win the special election. He has never been charged and won 80% of the vote on April 27th to become the 75th District State Representative. Reyes was sworn in two days later and the first vote he cast was to prohibit the trade of rhino horns in Connecticut.

Despite the pain both men suffered during the loan scandal, Victor Cuevas and Gerry Reyes remained best of friends. Cuevas worked hard to help Reyes win the special election on April 27th and stayed in the background serving pizza and soda to volunteers as the returns came in. After it was clear that Reyes had won, and almost everyone had left Reyes headquarters, the two men shared a lighthearted moment.

   Five weeks later Victor Cuevas decided to sign a plea deal that ended the pressure and uncertainty surrounding the $7000 loan. By pleading guilty in Federal Court yesterday, Cuevas faces the possibility of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Cuevas will be sentenced on September 21st and Judge Myer encouraged Cuevas to bring supporters to court who could testify about any positive impact he has had on the community during his 23 years as director of the River Baldwin Recreation Center, and his four years as state representative. Two legal experts said they do not believe Cuevas will get prison time for his crime.

   Additionally, during court proceedings yesterday Judge Myer asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Karwin about possible restitution that Cuevas might be asked to repay. Karwin said, “there had been no discernible loss.”

   And while that might be financially true, the loss to both Cuevas and Reyes has been steep. Both men lost their jobs, and both men have been targeted by social media trolls and vicious rumor and innuendo. But through it all the two men remain best friends. The only time in yesterday’s 90-minute hearing that Victor Cuevas lost his cool was when a federal prosecutor requested the judge order that there be “no contact” between Cuevas and Reyes until the sentencing on September 21st. Cuevas balked at that restriction and Judge Meyer agreed that a no contact order was excessive. The only restriction the judge placed on contact between the two men was not to talk about the case.

   An hour after pleading guilty yesterday in New Haven, Cuevas was placed on administrative leave from his job with the City of Waterbury at the River-Baldwin Recreation Center. Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary issued a statement that said, “I am saddened by the events of today. Victor was a very bright legislator, continues to be a respected member of the community, and an excellent supervisor at the South End Rec Center. As has been past practice in a felony arrest Victor has been placed on Administrative Leave pending a HR inquiry. We will be awaiting recommendations from that inquiry regarding his employment status in the future.”

   Cuevas and Reyes continue to struggle with the magnitude of the controversy that swirls around a loan that was given from Reyes’s hard work, and repaid by Cuevas’s hard work. Statewide media have repeated the federal charge of "conspiracy", and have called individuals co-conspirator #1 and co-conspirator #2, but Reyes and Cuevas both state there was no conspiracy. Cuevas said he asked Reyes for a loan, got one, and paid Reyes back. "If we were conspiring why would I have paid him back with a check," Cuevas said.

   And in open court Cuevas asked, “Who did we hurt?” After hearing that Judge Meyer asked if Cuevas had “known that what he did was wrong?”

   Cuevas replied, “Yes sir.”

   During another exchange Judge Meyer further probed Cuevas’s understanding of responsibility and guilt regarding his misrepresentation of Reyes as his cousin.

   “In our culture we’re family,” Cuevas said. “In the letter of the law it’s wrong. In the letter of our culture, we are family.”

Before taking returns in a primary showdown in August 2012, Cuevas and Reyes hugged, and expressed love for one another. Then they went into headquarters and trounced the incumbent, David Aldarondo.

   Seven hours later the two men were sharing a coffee on the back porch of the Reyes house on Madison Street in the South End of Waterbury. As Cuevas got up to leave he exchanged a complicated and affectionate handshake with Reyes, bear hugged him, and told Reyes he loved him.

   “This is all crazy Bro,” he said, and with a wave he was gone.