US

Former Puerto Rico Governor Arrested on Corruption Charges

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

Ms. Vázquez 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. According to the Department of Justice, Mr. Herrera wanted the island’s top banking regulator to be replaced, and offered Ms. Vázquez a $300,000 campaign donation in return. Ms. Vázquez, who was facing re-election at the time, agreed, W. Stephen Muldrow, the United States Attorney for Puerto Rico, said. A former F.B.I. agent, Mark T. Rossini, who served as a consultant to Mr. Herrera, was charged as well.

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

Two more people involved in the scheme have pleaded guilty and will each face up to five years in prison.

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, 62, 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 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 was actually working undercover for the F.B.I.

In May, Ms. Vázquez assembled reporters at her lawyer’s office to announce that she was under investigation.

“Nobody knows where these investigations are going,” she told the Telenoticias news station. “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.”

Her lawyer, Luiz Plaza, described the matter under investigation 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.

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

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

Mr. Rossini is a former F.B.I. supervisory agent who, before the Sept. 11 attacks, was assigned to a C.I.A. task force investigating Al Qaeda, but was criminally charged for illegally accessing the F.B.I. database.

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 involve 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.”

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 U.S. attorney’s office said. The governor has denied any links to the PAC.

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

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