By Rafy Rivera, Melissa Alonso and Ray Sanchez, CNN
Former Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vázquez was arrested Thursday in San Juan on bribery charges connected to the financing of her 2020 campaign, the US Justice Department says.
Vázquez is the first former governor to face federal charges. And the political scandal is the latest to shake an island still recovering nearly five years after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria.
One of her attorneys, Peter John Porrata, told CNN Vazquez will plead not guilty to the charges. She was released on bond after a brief hearing Thursday.
“I am innocent and a great injustice has been committed, ” Vázquez told reporters after her release. “I have committed no crime.”
A onetime political consultant for Vázquez and the president of an international bank have pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme, according to a DOJ statement.
A former FBI agent and the owner of the international bank that operated in San Juan also participated in the alleged scheme, federal officials say.
From December 2019 through June 2020, the 62-year-old former governor allegedly conspired in a scheme to finance her gubernatorial campaign, according to the DOJ.
Vázquez allegedly received more than $300,000 from two businessmen to finance political consultants during her campaign, Stephen Muldrow, US Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico, told reporters Thursday.
Vazquez and others are charged with conspiracy, federal programs bribery and honest services wire fraud.
The ex-governor, who is named in three of seven counts in an indictment, faces 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.
The bribes were allegedly paid in exchange for Vázquez making an appointment to the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions that benefited businessmen involved in the scheme, Muldrow said.
The indictment alleged the owner of the international bank and his consultant — the former FBI agent — agreed to provide funding for Vázquez’s campaign in exchange for her replacing the island’s top bank regulator with one of their choosing. At the time, the bank was the “subject of an examination” by the regulatory agency, federal prosecutors say.
Muldrow said the island’s current governor, who defeated Vázquez in an election, was not involved in the scheme.
A former Secretary of Justice, Vázquez served as governor of the US territory from 2019 to 2021. Her appointment came after disgraced former governor Ricardo Rosselló was forced to step down following islandwide protests against his government.
She became Secretary of Justice in January 2017 — with a mandate that included fighting corruption on the island — and was an ally of Rosselló.
In 2018, Vazquez came under fire for allegedly intervening on behalf of her daughter in a case stemming from a home theft. She faced charges of violating government ethics laws. But a judge later ruled there was insufficient evidence to arrest her.
Arrest affects ‘the confidence of our people’
Vázquez’s brief tenure as governor was contentious.
Her ties to the disgraced former governor brought scrutiny. Critics accused her of failing to open investigations against members of her own party, particularly Rosselló and his administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
In January 2020, Puerto Ricans poured onto the streets of San Juan calling for her resignation after Hurricane Maria supplies were found in a warehouse in the city of Ponce, more than two years after the storm.
Later that year, Puerto Rican officials confirmed Vásquez was being investigated for suspicion of mishandling resources meant to mitigate earthquake damage on the island.
Mayra Velez Serrano, a professor of political science at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, said Thursday that many people on the island were shocked at the arrest but not entirely surprised.
“That the former Justice Secretary … and ex-governor, who is married to a judge, that she was involved in anything like this and that she was arrested is still shocking,” Velez said. “This continues to undermine the public’s confidence in the political system and their politicians and the two main parties.”
Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who was elected governor after defeating Vásquez in a primary election, said Thursday, “Under my administration there is zero tolerance for corruption.”
“Today we see once again that no one is above the law in Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi, a member of the same pro-commonwealth party as Vásquez, said in Spanish via Twitter.
The arrest “certainly affects and lacerates the confidence of our people,” the governor said.
“I reiterate that in my administration we will continue to have a common front with the federal authorities against anyone who commits an improper act,” said the governor.
“Wherever it comes from and whoever it may implicate, as well as promoting initiatives and following up on the bills that I have presented to combat corruption,” he said.
In 2019, Rosselló handpicked Pierluisi as his successor.
His short-lived tenure came to an end after just five days when Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court declared his governorship unconstitutional.
Vázquez was subsequently sworn in. “In light of the decision by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, I must step aside and support the Secretary of Justice of Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi had said in a statement at the time.
Pierluisi then won the election for the seat in November 2020.
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