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FBI arrests former Puerto Rico governor on bribery charges

Wanda Vázquez Garced allegedly took bribes from a banker and a former FBI agent to fund her failed election bid

Then-Puerto Rican Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced (R) at a news conference in San Juan in May 2020. (Carlos Giusti/AP)

Federal law enforcement agents on Thursday arrested former Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vázquez Garced (R), charging her in a bribery scheme that was allegedly aimed at financing her failed 2020 gubernatorial campaign, the Justice Department said.

Officials said that while Vázquez Garced was governor in 2019 and 2020, she allegedly took campaign donations from a banker, Julio Martin Herrera Velutini, and a former FBI agent, Mark Rossini, who was consulting for the bank.

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Herrera Velutini’s bank was under investigation by the regulatory agency that oversees Puerto Rico’s financial institutions. He and Rossini allegedly paid more than $300,000 to consultants who supported Vázquez Garced’s campaign.

In exchange for the campaign donations, the governor allegedly said she would appoint a new commissioner to the regulatory agency of Herrera Velutini’s choosing. In February 2020, Vázquez Garced demanded the resignation of agency head. She appointed a new director a few months later, according to the federal indictment.

Vázquez Garced, Herrera Velutini and Rossini are each charged with conspiracy, federal programs bribery and wire fraud. If convicted on all counts, they face a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Vázquez Garced told reporters after a court appearance Thursday that she was innocent.

“I have not committed any crime,” she said. “I assure you that they have committed a great injustice against me.”

Attempts to reach representatives and defense attorneys for Herrera Velutini and Rossini were unsuccessful.

“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., who heads the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement Thursday. “No one is above the rule of law.”

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Rossini, the former FBI agent, pleaded guilty more than a decade ago to accessing a sensitive FBI database for personal purposes. He was sentenced to one year of probation.

The federal charges were the latest political scandal to hit Puerto Rico this year. Nine mayors in the island territory have faced federal corruption charges in 2022, according to the Associated Press.

The Justice Department said Thursday that two other people — John Blakeman, a political consultant who worked on Vázquez Garced’s campaign, and Frances Diaz, president of the bank that Herrera Velutini owned — have pleaded guilty to participating in the former governor’s bribery scheme. They face up to five years in prison.

Vázquez Garced, a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, had a tumultuous entry into Puerto Rico’s top political office.

In 2019, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned amid a scandal triggered by a leaked chat that contained offensive messages about his opponents and Hurricane Maria victims.

Puerto Rico’s secretary of state, Pedro Pierluisi (D), was then sworn in to the top job. But the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ultimately ruled that he was sworn in on unconstitutional grounds, paving the way for Vázquez Garced to take office.

At the time, she was Puerto Rico’s justice secretary, the territory’s top legal official. She faced widespread mistrust among residents over accusations that she mishandled prosecutions of the members of her own party. She denied those accusations.

Vázquez Garced failed to receive her party’s nomination for governor in 2020, losing to Pierluisi.