Former governor of Puerto Rico arrested on corruption charges

Wanda Vazquez is charged with conspiracy, federal programmes bribery and honest services wire fraud, officials say.

Wanda Vazquez
Wanda Vazquez had previously served as Puerto Rico's justice secretary and a district attorney [File: Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters]

The former governor of Puerto Rico Wanda Vazquez was arrested on bribery charges related to the financing of her 2020 campaign, and if convicted, could face up to 20 years in prison, United States officials said.

In a statement on Thursday, the US Department of Justice said Vazquez, 62, is accused of engaging in a bribery scheme from December 2019 through June 2020 with several people, including a Venezuelan-Italian bank owner, a former FBI agent, a bank president and a political consultant.

“The alleged bribery scheme rose to the highest levels of the Puerto Rican government, threatening public trust in our electoral processes and institutions of governance,” Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A Polite, Jr said in the statement.

“The Department of Justice is committed to holding accountable those who wrongly believe there is one rule of law for the powerful and another for the powerless,” Polite said.

The development comes after Vazquez’s attorney told reporters in May that the former governor was preparing for possible charges. She has denied any wrongdoing.

“I can tell the people of Puerto Rico that I have not committed any crime, that I have not engaged in any illegal or incorrect conduct, as I have always said,” Vazquez said in May.

According to the Justice Department, the political consultant, identified as John Blakeman, and the president of an international bank, identified as Frances Diaz, have pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme.

In early 2019, the bank owned by Julio Martin Herrera Velutini was being scrutinised by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions.

Authorities said Herrera and Mark Rossini, a former FBI agent who provided consulting services to Herrera, allegedly promised to financially support Vazquez’s 2020 campaign for governor in exchange for Vazquez dismissing the commissioner and appointing a new one of Herrera’s choosing.

Authorities said Vazquez 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 Vazquez’s campaign.

After Vazquez lost the primary to Pedro Pierluisi, authorities said Herrera then allegedly sought to bribe him to end an audit into his bank with favourable terms for him. Herrera is accused of using intermediaries from April 2021 to August 2021 to offer a bribe to Governor Pierluisi’s representative, who was actually acting under FBI orders, 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, US Attorney for Puerto Rico, said Pierluisi is not involved in the case.

Vazquez, Herrera and Rossini are each charged with conspiracy, federal programmes bribery and honest services wire fraud. If they are found guilty on all counts, they could face up to 20 years in prison, the Justice Department said. Meanwhile, Diaz and Blakeman could face up to five years in prison.

Muldrow said officials believe Herrera is in the United Kingdom and Rossini in Spain. It was not clear if the US would seek to extradite them.

Wanda Vazquez
Puerto Rico’s former Governor Wanda Vazquez speaking at a news conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico [File: Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters]

In a statement on Thursday Pierluisi said his administration will work with federal authorities to help fight corruption.

“Today we see once again that no one is above the law in Puerto Rico,”   Pierluisi said in a statement shared on his twitter account.

“We all have to be united against this social evil and under my administration there is zero tolerance against corruption,” he said.

Vazquez was the second woman to serve as Puerto Rico’s governor and the first former governor to face federal charges. Former governor Anibal Acevedo Vila was charged with campaign finance violations while in office and was found not guilty in 2009. He had been the first Puerto Rico governor to be charged with a crime in recent history.

Vazquez was sworn in as governor in August 2019 after former governor Ricardo Rossello stepped down following massive protests. She served until 2021, after losing the primaries of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party to now governor Pierluisi.

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

Shortly after she was sworn in, Vazquez 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.

Source: Al Jazeera, AP