Ex Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Arrested on Bribery Charges
(SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico) — Former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez was arrested Thursday on bribery charges linked to the financing of her 2020 campaign, the latest hit to an island with a long history of corruption that brought fresh political upheaval to the U.S. territory.
Vázquez is accused of engaging in a bribery scheme from December 2019 through June 2020 — while she was governor — with several people, including a Venezuelan-Italian bank owner, a former FBI agent, a bank president and a political consultant.
“I am innocent. I have not committed any crime,” she told reporters. ”I assure you that they have committed a great injustice against me.”
The arrest embarrassed and angered many in Puerto Rico who believe the island’s already shaky image has been further tarnished, leaving a growing number of people who have lost faith in their local officials to wonder whether federal authorities are their only hope to root out entrenched government corruption. As a result of concerns about past corruption cases, Puerto Rico received less federal aid after Hurricane Maria. However, the U.S. government took additional safeguards.
Thursday’s arrest also was a blow to Vázquez’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which is pushing to hold a referendum next year in a bid to become the 51st U.S. state.
Vázquez, 62, was the second woman to serve as Puerto Rico’s governor and the first former governor to face federal charges. Ex-Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of the opposing Popular Democratic Party was charged with campaign finance violations while in office and was found not guilty in 2009. His was the first governor of Puerto Rico to face a criminal charge in recent times.
“For the second time in our history, political power and public office are used to finance an electoral campaign,” said José Luis Dalmau, president of Acevedo’s party. “Using the power of the government to advance political agendas is unacceptable and an affront to democracy in Puerto Rico.”
Vázquez’s consultant, identified as John Blakeman, and the bank president, identified as Frances Díaz, have pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In early 2019, the international bank owned by Julio Martín Herrera Velutini was being scrutinized by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions because of transactions authorities believed were suspicious and had not been reported by the bank.
Authorities said Herrera and Mark Rossini, the former FBI agent who provided consulting services to Herrera, allegedly promised to financially support Vázquez’s 2020 campaign for governor in exchange for Vázquez dismissing the commissioner and appointing a new one of Herrera’s choosing.
Authorities said Vázquez accepted the bribery offer and in February 2020 demanded the commissioner’s resignation. She then was accused of appointing a former consultant for Herrera’s bank as the new commissioner in May 2020. After the move, officials said Herrera and Rossini paid more than $300,000 to political consultants to support Vázquez’s campaign.
A flurry of messages exchanged during that time between people involved in the case included a heart emoji attached to the commissioner’s resignation letter and three sealed lips emojis when someone provided Rossi’s name to Vázquez, who requested the name of “the guy from the FBI.” In addition, Herrera texted Rossini about the need for a campaign manager and said he didn’t want “a monkey from Puerto Rico.”
After Vázquez lost the primary to current Gov. According to authorities, Pedro Pierluisi was bribed by Herrera to get an auditor to his bank to terminate the audit with favorable terms. Herrera is accused of using intermediaries from April 2021 to August 2021 to offer a bribe to Pierluisi’s representative, who was actually acting under FBI orders, according to the indictment.
Officials claimed that Herrera made a payment of $25,000 to a political committee, in an attempt to subvert Pierluisi.
Stephen Muldrow is the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico. He said Pierluisi was not involved.
Vázquez, Herrera and Rossini are each charged with conspiracy, federal programs bribery and honest services wire fraud. Officials stated that they can face 20 years imprisonment if found guilty of all the charges.
Meanwhile, Díaz and Blakeman could face up to five years in prison, officials said.
Muldrow claimed officials think Herrera is in Britain and Rossini, in Spain. It wasn’t clear if the U.S. would seek to extradite them.
Rossini was released from the FBI as part of a plea agreement in November 2008. He pleaded guilty in criminally accessing sensitive FBI data for his personal use. The searches involved Anthony Pellicano. He was a well-known private investigator for stars who was accused of wiretapping some celebrities and corrupting a police officer in 2006.
It was not possible to reach the attorneys of the other suspects involved in the case immediately for comment.
In mid-May, Vázquez’s attorney told reporters that he and his client were preparing for possible charges as the former governor at the time denied any wrongdoing.
Vázquez was sworn in as governor in August 2019 after former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló stepped down following massive protests. After losing the primary elections of the New Progressive Party to Pierluisi, she served her term until 2021.
Pierluisi made a statement on Thursday saying that his administration will cooperate with federal authorities in fighting corruption.
“No one is above the law in Puerto Rico,” he said. “Faced with this news that certainly affects and lacerates the confidence of our people, I reiterate that in my administration, we will continue to have a common front with federal authorities against anyone who commits an improper act, no matter where it comes from or who it may implicate.”
Vázquez previously served as the island’s justice secretary and a district attorney for more than 30 years.
She became governor after Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled that the swearing in of Pierluisi — who had only been nominated as secretary of state — as governor was unconstitutional. Vázquez at the time said she was not interested in running for office and would only finish the nearly two years left in Rosselló’s term.
Rosselló had resigned in late July 2019 after tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the street, angry over corruption, mismanagement of public funds and an obscenity-laced chat in which he and 11 other men including public officials made fun of women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria, among others.
Shortly after she was sworn in, Vázquez told the AP that her priorities were to fight corruption, secure federal hurricane recovery funds and help lift Puerto Rico out of a deep economic crisis as the government struggled to emerge from bankruptcy.
During her interview she said that she has always wanted to work in public service. She told the AP she was a little girl who would sit on her balcony holding imaginary trials. Each time she found the defendant guilty, it would be a sad day.
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