Former Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Arrested on Corruption Charges – Michmutters

Former Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Arrested on Corruption Charges

A former governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez, was arrested by the FBI on Thursday and accused of accepting bribes from a campaign donor while in office and naming a regulatory official of his choosing in exchange for financing her campaign.

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

The donor, Julio M. Herrera Velutini — a Venezuelan banker who has been mired in regulatory problems in Puerto Rico — was also charged. Mr. Herrera, 50, owns Bancrédito, an international bank that faced scrutiny from Puerto Rico regulators over suspicious banking transactions.

According to the Department of Justice, Mr. Herrera wanted the island’s top banking regulator to be replaced, and in return 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, W. Stephen Muldrow, the United States Attorney for Puerto Rico, said, adding that Mr. Herrera then formed a political action committee for Ms. Vázquez.

The grand jury’s 42-page indictment details meetings and text messages purported to show the quid-pro-quo nature of the arrangement. The governor went through with her end of the bargain, forcing the incumbent banking commissioner to step down and installing Mr. Herrera’s choice as the new commissioner, according to the indictment.

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

Mr. Rossini, 60, is a former FBI supervisory agent who, before the Sept. 11 attacks, was assigned to a CIA task force investigating Al Qaeda, but was criminally charged for illegally running unauthorized searches on a government computer. After pleading guilty to those charges, he paid a fine and served community service and a year of probation.

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

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

Ms. Vázquez spoke to reporters on Thursday outside the federal courthouse in San Juan, where she was released on a $50,000 bond. Usually stylishly put together when in public, Ms. Vázquez looked like someone who had been rousted out of bed.

“I reiterate to the people and to all of you: I am innocent,” Ms. Vázquez said. “I have not committed any crime or any irregularity. Now it’s up to me to defend myself. I assure you they have committed a great injustice against me.”

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

“Not even the indictment alleges that she was enriched one cent,” Mr. Plaza said.

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

Ms. Vázquez was the commonwealth’s top prosecutor in 2019 when mass protests swept Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló out of office. The island has no lieutenant governor, and the first office in the line of succession, secretary of state, was vacant at the time, so Mr. Rosselló’s resignation unexpectedly catapulted Ms. Vázquez into the governorship. A Republican and member of the island’s pro-statehood party, she served for less than two years, completing Mr. Rosselló’s term but losing her bid for re-election when she was defeated in a primary in 2020.

Federal prosecutors said that when Ms. Vázquez lost the primary, Mr. Herrera tried offering a bribe to the winner — the current governor, Pedro R. Pierluisi. But the person representing Mr. Pierluisi in the scheme was actually working undercover for the FBI

In May, Ms. Vázquez assembled reporters at the office of her lawyer, Mr. Plaza, to announce that she was under investigation. He described the investigation then as a “technical” issue that they would fight in court.

“We are going to litigate it, and we are going to win,” Mr. Plaza, a former prosecutor, said in May.

In November 2018, when she was the island’s secretary of justice, Ms. Vázquez faced allegations that she had improperly intervened on behalf of her daughter and son-in-law in a case involving a theft from their residence. Ms. Vázquez was briefly suspended from her post as the investigation developed. But she was later cleared of any ethical violations in the case by a judge who said there was insufficient evidence against her.

Before she was the top prosecutor, Ms. Vázquez led Puerto Rico’s office of women’s affairs, where she often clashed with women’s advocacy groups who said she was not doing enough to combat domestic violence.

On Thursday, federal prosecutors said that Mr. Herrera was in London and Mr. Rossini was in Spain, and that efforts would be made to extradite them.

Attempts to reach Mr. Rossini for comment were unsuccessful.

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

“They were false. There were no campaign contributions as they allege,” Mr. Delgado said. “We look forward to addressing them in a court of law.”

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

“The bank continues to operate normally and to work closely and collaboratively with the Puerto Rico and federal banking authorities,” Gregorio D’Andrea, the chief operating officer, said in a statement.

Corey R. Amundson, chief of the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, said the case was one of a string of recent corruption cases around the country, including in Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina, that involved businesspeople.

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

Governor Pierluisi said on Thursday that the arrest of his predecessor showed that “nobody is above the law in Puerto Rico.”

Although Mr. Muldrow repeatedly stressed that the current governor is not accused of any crimes, Mr. 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 in a scheme to hide the origins of “dark money,” the US attorney’s office said. The governor has denied any links to the PAC.

Another former governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, was acquitted of federal corruption charges in 2009.

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

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