San Juan Puerto Rico – Former Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vázquez was arrested Thursday on bribery charges related to her 2020 bid. campaign financing, the latest blow on an island where a long history of corruption has brought new political upheavals on U.S. soil.
Vázquez is accused of participating in a bribery scheme since 2019. December. until 2020 in June, when she was governor, with several people, including a Venezuelan-Italian bank owner, a former FBI agent, a bank president and a political consultant.
“I’m not guilty. I did not commit any crime,” she told reporters. “I assure you that they have done me a great injustice.”
The arrest has baffled and angered many Puerto Ricans, who see the island’s already shaky image as a further deterioration, leaving a growing number of people who have lost faith in local officials to wonder if federal authority is the only hope to stamp out entrenched government corruption. . Concerns about past corruption led to federal aid to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, with the US government implementing more safeguards.
Thursday’s arrest was also a blow to Vázquez’s pro-state New Progressive Party, which is seeking a referendum next year to become the 51st US state.
Vázquez was the second woman to serve as governor of Puerto Rico and the first former governor to face federal charges. Former governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of the opposition People’s Democratic Party was accused of campaign finance violations while in office and in 2009. was found guilty. He was the first governor of Puerto Rico to be charged with a crime in recent history.
“For the second time in our history, political power and public office are being used to finance an election campaign,” said José Luis Dalmau, president of Acevedo’s party. “The use of government power to advance political agendas is unacceptable and an affront to democracy in Puerto Rico.”
Vázquez’s consultant, identified as John Blakeman, and the bank’s president, identified as Frances Díaz, pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme, according to the US Department of Justice.
in 2019 An international bank owned by Julio Martín Herrera Velutini was under investigation by the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions in Puerto Rico for transactions that authorities believed were suspicious and that the bank did not report.
Authorities said Herrera and Mark Rossini, a former FBI agent who provided Herrera with consulting services, allegedly pledged to financially support Vázquez’s 2020 campaign. gubernatorial campaign in exchange for Vázquez firing the commissioner and appointing a new one of Herrera’s choosing.
Authorities said Vázquez accepted the bribery offer and 2020. demanded the commissioner’s resignation in February. Then she was accused that in 2020 appointed a former Herrera bank consultant as the new commissioner in May. After the move, officials said Herrera and Rossini paid more than $300,000 to political consultants to support Vázquez’s campaign.
During that time, a series of messages exchanged between those involved in the case included a heart emoji attached to a commissioner’s resignation letter and three lips emojis when someone submitted Rossi’s name to Vázquez, who asked for “the guy from the FBI.” Also, Herrera texted Rossini about needing a campaign manager and said he didn’t want a “monkey from Puerto Rico.”
After Vázquez lost the primary to incumbent governor Pedro Pierluis, authorities said Herrera then allegedly sought to bribe Pierluis to get his bank audit completed on favorable terms. According to the indictment, Herrera is accused of using intermediaries between April 2021 and August 2021 to offer bribes to Pierluisi’s representative, who was actually acting under instructions from the FBI.
Authorities said Herrera then ordered a $25,000 payment to a political action committee in hopes of bribing Pierluis.
Stephen Muldrow, the U.S. attorney in Puerto Rico, said Pierluisi is not involved in the case.
Vázquez, Herrera and Rossini are charged with conspiracy, federal program bribery and honest services fraud. If convicted on all charges, they could face up to 20 years in prison, officials said.
Díaz and Blakeman, meanwhile, could face up to five years in prison, officials said.
Muldrow said authorities believe Herrera is in the United Kingdom and Rossini is in Spain. It is unclear whether the US will seek their extradition.
Vázquez’s spokesman, Juan Rosado-Reynés, told the AP he had no immediate comment.
The lawyers of the other suspects accused in the case could not be reached for comment.
In mid-May, Vázquez’s lawyer told reporters that he and his client were preparing for possible charges, as the former governor denied any wrongdoing at the time: “I can tell the people of Puerto Rico that I have not committed any crime, I have not engaged in any illegal or wrongful conduct, as I have always said.
Vázquez was sworn in as governor in 2019. in August after former governor Ricardo Rosselló resigned following massive protests. She served until 2021, when she lost the primaries of the pro-state New Progress Party to Pierluisi.
In a statement Thursday, Pierluisi said his administration would work with federal authorities to help fight corruption.
“No one is above the law in Puerto Rico,” he said. “In light of this news, which undoubtedly affects and erodes the confidence of our people, I reiterate that my administration will continue to cooperate with federal authorities against anyone who commits wrongdoing, no matter where it comes from or what that may mean.”
Vázquez previously served as the island’s secretary of justice and district attorney for more than 30 years.
She became governor after the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ruled that Pierluisi, who in 2019 was secretary of state, swearing in a governorship is unconstitutional. Vázquez said at the time that he was not interested in running for the position and would only finish the nearly two years remaining in Rosselló’s term.
Rosselló resigned after tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets, angered by corruption, mismanagement of public funds and an obscene speech in which he and 11 other men, including public officials, mocked women, gays and hurricane victims. Maria, among others.
Shortly after being sworn in, Vázquez told the AP that her priorities were fighting corruption, securing federal hurricane recovery funds and helping pull Puerto Rico out of a deep economic crisis as the government struggled to emerge from bankruptcy.
During the interview, she told the AP that she had long wanted to be in public service: as a girl, she used to stand on her balcony and hold mock trials, finding alleged defendants guilty.