Former Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez arrested on corruption costs

Former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez was arrested by the FBI on Thursday and charged with accepting bribes from a campaign donor while in office and naming a regulatory official of her choice in exchange for her campaign funding.

Ms. Vázquez, 62, was arrested at her home after being indicted by a grand jury.

Donor Julio M. Herrera Velutini, a Venezuelan banker embroiled in regulatory trouble in Puerto Rico, was also indicted. Mr. Herrera, 50, owns Bancrédito, an international bank that has been under scrutiny by Puerto Rico regulators for suspicious banking transactions.

According to the Justice Department, Mr. Herrera wanted the island’s top banking regulator replaced and in exchange offered to pay $300,000 to political consultants working on the governor’s campaign. Ms. Vázquez, who was facing re-election at the time, agreed to the plan, said W. Stephen Muldrow, the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico, adding that Ms. Herrera then formed Ms. Vázquez’s political action committee.

The grand jury’s 42-page indictment details meetings and text messages that allegedly show the quid-pro-quo nature of the arrangement. According to the indictment, the governor closed her deal by forcing the resignation of the current banking commissioner and appointing Mr. Herrera as the new commissioner.

To mask the “illegal and corrupt intent of the bribes,” Mr. Herrera’s payments were funneled through Mark T. Rossini, who served as Mr. Herrera’s consultant and is accused of facilitating the deal, the Justice Department said.

Mr. Rossini, 60, is a former FBI surveillance agent who was assigned to a CIA task force investigating al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks, but has been indicted for conducting illegal government computer searches. After pleading guilty to those charges, he paid a fine and completed community service and a year of probation.

The former governor, banker and former federal agent were charged with conspiracy, federal program bribery and honest services fraud and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, Muldrow said.

Two other people involved in the bribery scheme, the bank’s president and one of Ms. Vázquez’s campaign consultants, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and face up to five years in prison each.

Ms. Vázquez spoke to reporters Thursday outside a federal courthouse in San Juan, where she was released on $50,000 bail. In the usually stylish public outing, Ms Vázquez looked as if she had just rolled out of bed.

“I repeat to the people and to all of you: I am innocent,” Ms Vázquez said. “I have not committed any crime or offence. Now I have to defend myself. I assure you that they have done me a great injustice.

Her lawyer, Luis Plaza, noted that she was not accused of personally receiving bribe money.

“Even the indictment doesn’t say she got one cent richer,” Plaza said.

The former governor’s arrest coincides with a wave of unrelated public corruption cases on the island, including the arrests of nine mayors this year.

Ms. Vázquez was the Commonwealth’s top prosecutor in 2019 when Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló resigned amid mass protests. The island does not have a lieutenant governor and the first post of secretary of state was vacant at the time, prompting Mr. Rosselló to resign. unexpectedly catapulted Ms. Vázquez to the governorship. A republican and member of the island’s pro-statehood party, she served less than two years at the end of Mr Rosselló’s term, but lost his bid for re-election in 2020. was defeated in the primaries.

Federal prosecutors said that when Ms. Vázquez lost the primary, Mr. Herrera tried to offer bribes to the winner, incumbent Gov. Pedro R. Pierluis. But the person representing Mr. Pierluisi in the scheme was actually working undercover for the FBI

In May, Ms. Vázquez gathered reporters at the office of her lawyer, Mr. Plaza, to announce that an investigation had been launched. He then described the investigation as a “technical” issue that they would fight in court.

“We intend to litigate and win,” former prosecutor Mr. Plaza said in May.

in 2018 in November, when she was the island’s justice secretary, Ms. Vázquez was accused of improperly intervening on behalf of her daughter and son-in-law in a case involving a theft from their residence. Ms. Vázquez was briefly suspended while the investigation unfolded. But a judge later cleared her of any ethics violations in the case, saying there was insufficient evidence against her.

Before becoming attorney general, Ms. Vázquez headed Puerto Rico’s Office of Women’s Affairs, where she often clashed with women’s rights groups who said she was not doing enough to combat domestic violence.

Federal prosecutors said Thursday that Mr. Herrera was in London and Mr. Rossini was in Spain and that extradition would be sought.

Attempts to reach Mr. Rossini for comment were unsuccessful.

Mr. Herrera’s lawyer, Luis Delgado, said his client denied the allegations detailed in the indictment.

“They were false. There was no campaign contribution as they claim,” Delgado said. “We hope to be able to address them in court.”

The bank, which Mr. Herrera owns, issued a statement saying he had resigned as chairman and as a member of the board of directors.

“The bank continues to operate as normal and is working closely with Puerto Rico and federal banking authorities,” Gregorio D’Andrea, chief operating officer, said in a statement.

Corey R. Amundson, head of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Division, said the case was one of a string of recent corruption cases involving businessmen across the country, including in Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina.

“We cannot and will not turn a blind eye to the important role played by corrupt members of the business world who make this corruption possible and provide opportunities,” he said during a press conference in San Juan on Thursday. “They must be held accountable and they will be.”

Governor Pierluisi said Thursday that his predecessor’s arrest showed that “no one is above the law in Puerto Rico.”

While Muldrow has repeatedly emphasized that the incumbent governor is not accused of any crimes, Pierluisi’s campaign has faced its own legal troubles.

The president and treasurer of a political action committee that raised money for Mr. Pierluisi’s campaign pleaded guilty in May to a scheme to conceal the origin of “dark money,” the U.S. attorney’s office said. The governor has denied any ties to the PAC.

Another former governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vila, was acquitted of federal corruption charges.

“Corruption is not a victimless crime,” said Joseph González, special agent in charge of the FBI in Puerto Rico. “The victim is the people of Puerto Rico.

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