Former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez was arrested Thursday in a bribery scheme in which she allegedly pushed out a high-ranking government official in exchange for more than $300,000 to help her 2020 campaign.
Vázquez, 62, is accused of working out the bribes with conspirators who included a former FBI agent, a Venezuelan Italian bank owner and a political consultant, according to the Department of Justice.
“Public corruption erodes the people’s trust in our institutions and fuels civil unrest,” Joseph González, special agent in charge of the FBI San Juan Field Office, said in a statement.
“No one is above the law and the victim of this crime, the People, deserve better.”
Vázquez, the second woman to serve as Puerto Rico’s governor, was elected in 2019 after mass protests forced her predecessor from office — and she once listed fighting corruption as a top priority for her administration in an interview with the Associated Press.
But the DOJ said Vázquez agreed to accept a bribe in exchange for replacing the head of Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions, which was scrutinizing an international bank operating in San Juan.
She allegedly replaced the official with someone handpicked by the owner of the under-audit bank, Julio Martín Herrera Velutini.
Herrera and his consultant — former FBI Special Agent Mark Rossini — allegedly promised through intermediaries to provide funding for Vázquez’s election bid in exchange for appointing the more favorable commissioner.
Vázquez “demanded” the commissioner’s resignation in February 2020, and named a replacement in May 2020 who had previously worked as a consultant for Herrera’s bank, the DOJ said.
More than $300,000 flowed from the banker and ex-federal agent to political consultants for Vázquez, federal prosecutors said.
When Vázquez lost an election primary in August 2020, Herrera allegedly tried to bribe her successor with promises of campaign cash in exchange for ending the audit of the bank on favorable terms, the DOJ said. Intermediaries made the bribe offer to someone working with the FBI, according to the feds.
A spokesman for Vázquez, a former justice secretary and district attorney, told the AP they had no immediate comment.
The governor had previously denied wrongdoing to the news service when it became clear charges might be coming.
“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, as I have always said,” she said in May.
Vázquez, the first former Puerto Rico governor to face federal charges, replaced former Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who stepped down amid controversies including accusations of corruption and economic struggles.
She left office in 2021 after losing a New Progressive Party primary to now-Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.
Pierluisi said in a statement that “no one is above the law in Puerto Rico.”
“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,” the governor said.
Vázquez, Herrera and Rossini each face up to 20 years in prison on charges of conspiracy, federal programs bribery and honest services fraud, the DOJ said.
Also charged in the scheme are Frances Diaz, 50, the CEO and president of the bank, and John Blakeman, 53, Vázquez’s political consultant. Both have pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to arrange the bribes, the DOJ said Thursday. They each face five years behind bars.
With Post wires