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FBI arrests Wanda Vazquez-Garced, former governor or Puerto Rico, for bribery

FILE: Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez Garced speaks during a press conference to announce strict new rules for all passengers flying into Puerto Rico to curb coronavirus cases in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 30, 2020. RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

Former governor of Puerto Rico Wanda Vazquez-Garced was arrested Thursday by federal officials for bribery charges linked to her 2020 gubernatorial campaign.

Vazquez-Garced is accused of seven charges and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. She's scheduled to make her initial court appearance Thursday in federal court in the District of Puerto Rico. 

According to the indictment, she allegedly engaged in a bribery scheme from December 2019 through July 2020 with multiple individuals, including the Venezuelan-Italian bank owner Julio Martin Herrera Velutini; the bank's president, Frances Diaz; former FBI agent Mark Rossini and political consultant John Blakeman.

A Justice Department news release said that Diaz and Blakeman have pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme. 

Early in 2019, Puerto Rico's Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions (OCIF), which oversees financial institutions operating in Puerto Rico, began investigating Herrera Velutini's bank. 

In a press conference, Puerto Rican authorities alleged that Rossini and Herrera Velutini agreed to financially support Vazuqez-Garced's reelection campaign if she terminated OCIF's commissioner and appointed a new consultant.

"The accusation allegedly says that Vazquez-Garced accepted the bribery deal," Stephen Muldrow, U.S. attorney for the District of Puerto Rico, said Thursday. 

In February 2020, Vazquez-Garced asked the OCIF commissioner to resign, according to Muldrow.

Four months later, she named the new commissioner, whom the U.S. alleges was "personally selected" by Herrera Velutini.  

In return, prosecutors say Herrera Velutini and Rossini supported Vazquez-Garced's campaign by paying over $300,000 in political consultants' fees. 

Vazquez-Garced lost her primary to incumbent Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.

The indictment also alleges that Herrera Velutini sought to bribe Pierluisi, who succeeded Vazquez-Garced, to end the investigation against his bank. In exchange, he would fund and support Pierluisi's campaign.

"This accusation is not alleging any illegal or illicit acts against the active governor," Muldrow clarified. 

A judge set bail at $50,000 after Vazquez-Garced was arrested in her home in San Juan. 

"To my people of Puerto Rico and to everyone, I'm innocent. They've committed a huge injustice… I can say that I have not committed any crime," Vazquez-Garced told reporters as she was leaving the federal courthouse in Puerto Rico. 

Vazquez took office in August 2019 after weekslong protests led to the resignation of then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. Before she was sworn in, she led Puerto Rico's Justice Department and was district attorney for over 20 years. 

This is Vazquez-Garced's second scandal. She was under some scrutiny after firing a government official who had called for an independent investigation into how aid was distributed in the aftermath of the 6.4 earthquakes that hit the island in Jan. 2020. 

After her arrest, Pierluisi said in a statement, "Once again, we see today that no one is above the law in Puerto Rico." 

"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… under my administration there is zero tolerance against corruption," Pierluisi added. 

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