Former Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez was arrested on Thursday on bribery charges, according to a statement by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The federal charges are connected to the financing of Vázquez’s 2020 gubernatorial campaign. Between December 2019 and June 2020, Vásquez allegedly received $300,000 from a banker and a former FBI agent to pay political consultants for her campaign. Authorities believe that in return for the donations, Vázquez would have appointed the donors’ desired candidate to the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions (OCIF).
Vázquez and other accused participants in the scheme have been charged with conspiracy, federal programs bribery, and honest services wire fraud, and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
“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 a statement.
Vázquez had previously served as Puerto Rico’s secretary of justice and as a district attorney, and she became governor in 2019, after her predecessor, Ricardo Rosselló, was forced to step down by island-wide protests after a scandal of his own.
The DOJ also named Herrera Velutini, Frances Diaz, John Blakeman, and Mark Rossini as accused participants in the corruption scheme. Velutini, 50, is a dual Venezuelan-Italian citizen and the owner of an international bank, and Diaz, a 50-year-old resident of Puerto Rico, was the bank’s president. Rossini, 60, was a former FBI special agent and a consultant for Velutini, and Blakeman, 53, is a political consultant who worked on Vázquez’s 2020 campaign.
Velutini’s bank was reportedly audited in 2019 by the OCIF. Velutini and Rossini are accused of reaching out via third parties to various political candidates and offering bribes and campaign support in exchange for the replacement of the current commissioner of the OCIF with a former consultant of Velutini’s. After Vázquez lost her party primary in 2020, the group allegedly attempted to reach out to her successor; an FBI informant posing as his representative caught them.
Diaz and Blakeman have both pleaded guilty to charges connected to the bribery scheme, according to the indictment.
Peter John Porrata, a member of Vázquez’s legal team, told CNN on Thursday that Vázquez will plead not guilty to the charges.
Vázquez’s successor, Governor Pedro Pierluisi, said in response to the ruling that under his administration, there was “zero tolerance for corruption.”
“No one is above the law in Puerto Rico,” he said. “Faced with this news that certainly affects and lacerates the confidence of our people, I reiterate that in my administration, we will continue to have a common front with federal authorities against anyone who commits an improper act, no matter where it comes from or who it may implicate.”