Former Puerto Rico governor arrested on corruption charges


A former governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez, was arrested Thursday by the FBI and charged with taking bribes from a campaign donor while in office and naming a regulatory official of his choice in exchange for funding 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 mired in regulatory troubles in Puerto Rico — was also charged. Herrera, 50, owns Bancrédito, an international bank that has been criticized by Puerto Rico’s regulators for suspicious banking transactions.

According to the Justice Department, Mr. Herrera wanted the island’s chief banking supervisor replaced and in return offered to pay $300,000 to political advisers working on the governor’s campaign. Ms. Vázquez, who was up for reelection at the time, agreed to the plan, said W. Stephen Muldrow, the United States Attorney for Puerto Rico, adding that Mr. Herrera subsequently formed a political action committee for Ms. Vázquez.

The 42-page grand jury indictment details meetings and text messages purporting to demonstrate the settlement’s consideration. The governor went through with her end of the deal, forced the incumbent bank commissioner to resign and installed Mr. Herrera’s choice as the new commissioner, according to the indictment.

To disguise the “illegal and corrupt purpose of the bribes,” Mr. Herrera channeled through Mark T. Rossini, who served as advisor to Mr. Herrera served and is accused of facilitating the settlement, the Justice Department said.

Mr Rossini, 60, is a former FBI supervisor who was assigned to a CIA task force investigating Al Qaeda before the September 11 attacks, but was charged with illegally conducting 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.

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

Two more people implicated in the bribery scheme — the bank’s president and one of Ms. Vázquez’s campaign advisers — pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and 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 $50,000 bail. Usually stylishly put together when she was in public, Mrs. Vázquez looked like someone who had been woken from bed.

“I repeat to the people and all of you: I am innocent,” said Ms Vázquez. “I have committed no crime or irregularity. Now it’s up to me to defend myself. I assure you that they have committed a great injustice against me.”

Her attorney, Luis Plaza, noted that she was not accused of personally receiving bribes.

“Even the indictment does not allege that she was spiked a penny,” Mr Plaza said.

The former governor’s arrest coincides with a spate 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 drove Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló from 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 brought Ms Vázquez into the governorship. A Republican and a member of the island’s pro-statehood party, she served less than two years and completed Mr. Rosselló’s term, but lost her bid for reelection when she was defeated in a primary in 2020.

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

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

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

In November 2018, while serving as the island’s justice minister, Ms Vázquez was accused of wrongly intervening on behalf of her daughter and son-in-law in a case of theft from their home. Ms. Vázquez was briefly suspended from her position as the investigation progressed. 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 headed Puerto Rico’s office for women’s affairs, where she often clashed with women’s advocacy groups who said she wasn’t doing enough to fight domestic violence.

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

Attempts to reach Mr Herrera and Mr Rossini for comment were unsuccessful.

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

“We cannot and will not turn a blind eye to a critical role played by corrupt members of the corporate world who enable this corruption and provide 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 Thursday that his predecessor’s arrest showed that “no one is above the law in Puerto Rico”.

Although mr. Muldrow has repeatedly emphasized that the current governor is not charged with any crime, Mr. Pierluisi had to deal with his own legal problems.

The chairman and treasurer of a political action committee that raised money for Mr. Pierluisi pleaded guilty in May to a plan to hide the origins of “dark money,” the US law firm said. The governor has denied any ties to the PAC.

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

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


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