By Carrie Johnson and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 28, 2008
The governor of Puerto Rico has promised he will surrender to the FBI today after being accused in an indictment of soliciting thousands of dollars in improper contributions in exchange for favors and government contracts on the U.S. commonwealth island.
Anibal Acevedo Vila, who previously served as Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in the U.S. House, flouted campaign finance laws to erase nearly $550,000 in debt and improperly received high-end suits and family vacations in Florida and Costa Rica, the indictment alleges.
The governor, who is running for a second term, was indicted with four Philadelphia donors to his campaigns and a Puerto Rican business owner, all of whom were alleged to be seeking favors and introductions to federal and island agencies. Seven current and former gubernatorial aides, including an administrator of the island's Washington office, were charged in the alleged conspiracy.
The interim U.S. attorney who brought the charges, Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Velez, said Acevedo Vila corrupted his office, lied to tax authorities and undermined "the essence of our representative form of government."
For months, Acevedo Vila has challenged the fairness of the grand jury investigation, enlisting lawyers and friends, including Puerto Rico's Washington lobbyist, Charles R. Black Jr., to help press his view.
Black, who is a top adviser to presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, last year contacted members of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- where Rodriguez-Vela's confirmation was approved Aug. 2 -- to inform them of his concerns about leaks from the investigation, he said. But Black said he did it as the governor's friend and did not bill Puerto Rico's government for his time.
Law enforcement officials yesterday brushed aside allegations of political interference.
FBI Special Agent Luis S. Fraticelli, appearing at news conference in San Juan, took the unusual step of providing a detailed timeline of the investigation and said it was conducted slowly, under "extensive and detailed scrutiny" by the Justice Department to avoid the appearance of political tampering.
Speaking in San Francisco, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey told an audience at the Commonwealth Club three hours after the indictment was unsealed that "politics has no role in the investigation or prosecution of political corruption or any other criminal offense and I have seen absolutely no evidence of any such impropriety in my time at the department."
Acevedo Vila denounced the conspiracy, fraud, false-statements and tax charges as the product of "three years of leaks, rumors and a spectacle aimed at harming me." He spoke to constituents in a televised address in which he vowed to fight back.
"I want to assure the people of Puerto Rico that I have never asked for nor accepted any donation in exchange for a government contract, nor have I allowed the misuse of public funds, nor have I acted illegally," he said in a prepared statement.
A Democratic superdelegate, Acevedo Vila last month threw his weight behind Sen. Barack Obama's presidential bid, endorsing him at a news conference as "the right leader to unite all Americans." In a statement in response to the indictment, Obama spokesman Bill Burton distanced the governor from the campaign. "Though he is a supporter, he holds no title and has no formal role with the campaign," Burton said.
Puerto Rico's Democrats will vote June 1, near the end of the primary election process. While they are not allowed to vote in the general election, Puerto Rico's Democrats could prove a decisive force in the battle between Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
At stake will be 55 delegates -- a number comparable to Oregon's -- to be apportioned by the percentage of the vote each candidate receives. Political observers there have said that Clinton has an edge, noting that her campaign was able to have the election switched from a caucus to a primary vote. To date, Obama has generally performed better in caucuses.
The criminal charges, returned by a grand jury Monday but unveiled to the public yesterday morning, put Acevedo Vila at the center of an eight-year-old alleged scheme to settle unpaid debts and evade election financing limits.
The problems date to 1999, when Acevedo Vila began to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts by running for a nonvoting spot in the U.S. House, the indictment said. He and his aides turned to subterfuge, taking money from relatives, engaging straw donors in the Philadelphia business community, and using corporate bank accounts and credit cards to hide the provenance of the cash, the indictment said.
Along the way, Acevedo Vila "personally participated in the solicitation, receipt and recording of" suspect contributions and closely tracked the decline in his campaign debts, according to the charging document filed against him. Prosecutors also detailed several incidents of personal enrichment, alleging that Acevedo Vila used illicit donations and campaign funds to pay his American Express bills for airfare to Orlando, Miami and Costa Rica.
He also received $57,000 worth of designer suits from employees connected to a firm identified in the indictment as "Company A," which performed campaign work for Acevedo Vila.
The indictment also accused Acevedo Vila of flouting spending limits in his 2004 run for governor by soliciting secret contributions. The allegation forms the basis of a charge that the governor bilked the commonwealth's treasury out of $7 million in public campaign funds.
Acevedo Vila and his aides, the indictment said, contacted the Office of Management and Budget, the Puerto Rico Housing Department, and the Puerto Rico Pension Fund to coordinate meetings and endorse the donors' clients for lucrative government contracts.
Attorneys for Eneidy Coreano Salgado, a former scheduler and administrator for Acevedo Vila, did not respond to telephone or e-mail messages.
Political corruption has plagued the commonwealth in recent years. Officials at an opposition party, the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico, were convicted in 2006 of conspiracy, extortion and tax fraud and have been sentenced to five years.
Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.