Former Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Accused of Corruption

San Juan, Puerto Rico — Former Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez was arrested Thursday on corruption charges related to her 2020 campaign finance, the latest blow on an island with a long history of corruption that has sparked further political upheaval on US soil.

Vázquez is accused of participating in a corruption scheme from December 2019 to June 2020 – 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 am innocent. I have not committed any crime,” she told reporters. “I assure you that they have done a great injustice against me.”

The arrest has embarrassed and angered many people in Puerto Rico who believe the island’s already fragile image has been further tarnished, leaving a growing number of people who have lost faith in their local officials to wonder if federal authorities are their only hope of rooting out entrenched government corruption. . Concerns over previous corruption cases led to a delay in federal aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria as the US government put in place more safeguards.

Thursday’s arrest also dealt a blow to Vázquez’s pro-state New Progressive Party, which is pushing to hold a referendum next year in a bid 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 opposing Popular Democratic Party was charged with campaign finance violations while in office and was found not guilty in 2009. He had been 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 the civil service are used to finance an electoral campaign,” said José Luis Dalmau, party president of Acevedo. “Using the power of 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’s president, identified as Frances Díaz, pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme, according to the US Department of Justice.

In early 2019, the international bank owned by Julio Martín Herrera Velutini was under review by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions due to transactions authorities deemed 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 firing the commissioner and of the appointment of a new choice of Herrera.

Authorities said Vázquez accepted the bribery offer, and in February 2020 he demanded the commissioner’s resignation. She was later accused of appointing a former Herrera bank consultant 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 the Vazquez campaign.

A flurry of messages exchanged during this time between those 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 asked for the name of “the guy from the FBI”. Additionally, 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 Governor Pedro Pierluisi, authorities said Herrera then sought to bribe Pierluisi to end an audit of his bank on favorable terms. Herrera is accused of using intermediaries from April 2021 to August 2021 to bribe Pierluisi’s representative, who was in fact acting under orders from the FBI, according to the indictment.

Officials said Herrera then ordered a $25,000 payment to a political action committee in hopes of trying to bribe Pierluisi.

Stephen Muldrow, U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico, said Pierluisi was not involved in the case.

Vázquez, Herrera and Rossini are each charged with conspiracy, federal program bribery and honest services wire fraud. If convicted on all counts, they could face up to 20 years in prison, officials said.

Meanwhile, Díaz and Blakeman could face up to five years in prison, officials said.

Muldrow said officials believed Herrera was in the UK and Rossini in Spain. It was unclear whether the United States would seek to extradite them.

Juan Rosado-Reynés, a spokesman for Vázquez, told the AP he had no immediate comment.

Lawyers for the other suspects charged in the case could not immediately be reached for comment.

In mid-May, Vázquez’s lawyer told reporters that he and his client were preparing for possible charges because the then-former governor had denied any wrongdoing: “I can tell the people of Porto Rico that I have not committed any crime, that I have not engaged in illegal or improper conduct, as I have always said.

Vázquez was sworn in as governor in August 2019 after former governor Ricardo Rosselló resigned following massive protests. She served until 2021, after losing the pro-state New Progressive Party primaries 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 the face of this news which certainly affects and tears the confidence of our people, I reiterate that in my administration, we will continue to stand united with the federal authorities against anyone who commits wrongdoing, no matter where they come from or who it is. may involve.

Vázquez previously served as the island’s justice secretary and district attorney for more than 30 years.

She became governor after Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled that the swearing in of Pierluisi – who was secretary of state in 2019 – as governor was unconstitutional. Vázquez said at the time that she was not interested in running for office and would only complete the nearly two years remaining of Rosselló’s term.

Rosselló had resigned after tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets, angry at corruption, mismanagement of public funds and a lewd conversation in which he and 11 other men, including government officials, made fun of women , homosexuals and hurricane victims. Mary, among others.

Shortly after being sworn in, Vázquez told the AP that his priorities were to fight corruption, secure federal hurricane recovery funds and help pull Puerto Rico out of a deep economic crisis as the government was struggling to emerge from bankruptcy.

During the interview, she told the AP that she had long wanted to be in public office: as a girl, she would stand on her balcony and hold mock trials, always convicting the supposed defendants.

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