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Ex-Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced indicted in election bribery scheme

By Pedro Oliveira Jr. & Darryl Coote
Ex-Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced indicted in election bribery scheme
Former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez, shown here in 2020, was among five people arrested Thursday in bribery scheme to finance her 2020 campaign. File Photo by Thais Llorca/EPA-EFE

Aug. 4 (UPI) -- Former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced was arrested Thursday in a bribery scheme to finance her failed 2020 campaign, the U.S. Justice Department announced.

In an indictment, the department said the fraudulent scheme involved Vázquez Garced, 62, and co-conspirators Julio Herrera Velutini, Frances Diaz, Mark Rossini and John Blakeman.

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"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 Polite Jr. said in a statement. "The Department of Justice is committed to holding accountable those who wrongly believe there is one rule of law for the powerful and another for the powerless. No one is above the rule of law."

Herrera Velutini, 50, owned an international bank operating in San Juan. Diaz, 50, was CEO of the bank. Rossini, 60, was a former FBI agent advising Herrera and Blakeman, 53, was a political consultant in Vázquez Garced's campaign.

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Authorities say Herrera Velutini and Rossini promised to donate $300,000 for Vázquez Garced's gubernatorial campaign if she installed a new head for the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions, a financial regulator in Puerto Rico.

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Vázquez Garced went on to become governor and fired the current commissioner in February 2020, installing a new chief three months later. Prosecutors say she received the $300,000 as promised.

Once Vázquez Garced lost in the August 2020 primaries, Herrera Velutini tried to bribe her successor $25,000 to smooth over an ongoing audit of his bank, prosecutors said.

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Vázquez Garced, Herrera Velutini and Rossini have been charged with conspiracy, federal programs bribery and honest services wire fraud, and if convicted each face up to 20 years in prison.

The Justice Department also announced Thursday that Blakeman and Diaz have pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme and face up to five years in prison.

Rossini was also previously sentenced to one year probation in 2009 after pleading guilty to five counts of criminally accessing a sensitive FBI database for personal purposes.

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Vázquez Garced first ascended to the governorship in August 2019, after former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was forced to resign after leaked text messages showed him participating in misogynistic and homophobic conversations.

A week earlier, the FBI had arrested two of Rosselló's aides in connection with a $15 million fraud case.

During a press conference announcing the charges Thursday, Cory Amundson, chief of the Justice Department's Integrity Section, said the allegations continue a "disturbing national trend" of corporate corruption aimed at elected officials.

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He said his office is seeing an increasing number of business leaders seeking to undermine regulatory efforts nationwide through bribes, with indictments brought in North Carolina, Illinois and Ohio.

"These are just to name a few. Today's indictment adds to that list," he said. "We will not turn a blind eye to the critical role played by corrupt members of the business world who make this corruption possible and provide the opportunities.

"They must be held accountable and they will be held accountable."

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