The former governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vazquezwas arrested Thursday and charged with bribery related to financing her 2020 campaign.
Wanda will be the first former governor of Puerto Rico to face federal charges.
Vázquez is accused of participating in a plan to bribes between December 2019 and June 2020 involving a Venezuelan-Italian banker, a former FBI agent, a bank president and a political consultant.
The consultant, identified as John Blakeman, and the bank’s president, identified as Frances Diaz, have pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme, according to the US Justice Department.
At the beginning of 2019, the bank owned by Julio Martín Herrera Velutini was investigated by the Commissioner of Financial Institutions of Puerto Rico.
Authorities said Herrera and Mark Rossinia former FBI agent who provided consulting services to Herrera, allegedly promised Vázquez’s campaign financial support in 2020 in exchange for her firing the commissioner and appointing another of the banker’s choosing.
According to authorities, Vázquez accepted the bribe offer and in February 2020 demanded the commissioner’s resignation. Then, according to the indictment, he appointed a former Herrera bank consultant as the new commissioner in May 2020. After that move, Herrera and Rossini paid more than $300,000 to various political consultants to support Vázquez’s campaign.
When Pierluisi defeated Vázquez in the primary, Herrera allegedly tried to bribe him into ending an audit of his bank on terms favorable to him, according to authorities. Herrera is accused of using intermediaries between April and August 2021 to offer a bribe to Pierluisi’s representative, who was actually acting under orders from the FBI, according to the indictment.
Herrera ordered that $25,000 be paid to a political action committee to try to bribe Pierluisi.
Stephen Muldrow, federal prosecutor for Puerto Rico, said Pierluisi is not implicated in the case.
Former Governor of Puerto Rico, Former FBI Agent and Banker Charged with Bribery and Fraud
Wanda Vazquez, Herrera and Rossini are accused of illicit association, bribery and fraud. If found guilty on all counts, they face up to 20 years in prison. Meanwhile, Díaz and Blakeman face up to five years in prison, according to authorities.
According to Muldrow, authorities believe Herrera is in the UK and Rossini in Spain. It was unclear whether the United States would seek his extradition.
Juan Rosado-Reynés, a spokesman for Vázquez, told the AP that he would not comment immediately.
Lawyers for others involved in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In mid-May, Vázquez’s attorney told reporters that he and his client were preparing to face possible charges. The former governor said that “I can tell the people of Puerto Rico that I have not committed any crime, that I have not engaged in any illegal, incorrect conduct, as I have always told them.”
Vázquez was the second woman on the charge and the first to be charged in federal court. Former Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá was charged while in office with violating campaign finance laws and found not guilty in 2009. He was the first governor in recent Puerto Rican history to be charged with a crime.
Vázquez assumed the governorship in August 2019 by ruling of the local Supreme Court after then-governor Ricardo Rosselló resigned amid massive protests. He held office until 2021, when he lost in the primaries of his New Progressive Party to now Governor Pedro Pierluisi.
Pierluisi said in a statement that his government will collaborate with federal authorities in the fight against corruption.
“Today we see once again that no one is above the law in Puerto Rico,” he said. “Faced with this news that certainly affects and damages the trust of our people, I reiterate that in my administration we will continue to have a common front with the federal authorities against anyone who commits an improper act, wherever it comes from and implicates whoever it is.”
Vázquez had been the territory’s secretary of justice and prosecutor for more than 30 years.
The territory’s Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the swearing-in of then Secretary of State Pierluisi as governor was unconstitutional. At that moment, Vazquez he told the AP that he was not interested in running for office and would limit himself to holding office for the two years remaining to Rosselló.
Rosselló had resigned when tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets, furious over corruption, embezzlement of public funds and an obscenity-filled chat where he and 11 other public officials mocked women, gays and victims of Hurricane Maria. .
Shortly after being sworn in, Vázquez told the AP that his priorities were fighting corruption, obtaining federal funds for hurricane recovery and getting Puerto Rico of the economic crisis, with a bankrupt government.
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During the AP interview, she said she had always wanted to work in public service: As a child, she would go out on the balcony and hold imaginary trials in which the accused invariably turned out guilty.