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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ex-Gov. Vázquez Garced, 2 others arrested in relation to alleged campaign bribery scheme

Former Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced

By The Star Staff

Federal authorities arrested former Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced early Thursday and charged her with federal bribery charges related to the financing of her 2020 electoral campaign.

Banker Julio Martín Herrera Velutini and former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Mark Rossini were also arrested in relation to the bribery scheme.

Vázquez Garced was released after posting $50,000 bail. Upon exiting the U.S. District Court in San Juan, the former governor said a grave injustice had been committed against her.

“I insist to my people and all of you that I am innocent,” she said.

Vázquez Garced was charged with a count of conspiracy, a count of bribery and honest services wire fraud. Herrera Velutini was accused of two counts of conspiracy, two counts of bribery, and two counts of honest service wire fraud, while Rossini was charged with conspiracy, bribery and honest services wire fraud. Herrera Velutini allegedly pleaded guilty to the charges, officials said Thursday.

“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “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.”

According to the indictment, from December 2019 through June 2020, Vázquez Garced, 62, allegedly engaged in a bribery scheme with various individuals, including Herrera Velutini, Frances Díaz, Mark Rossini and John Blakeman, to finance Vázquez Garced’s 2020 gubernatorial election campaign.

“The criminal actions of the defendants in this case strike a blow to the heart of our democracy and further erode the confidence of our citizens in their institutions of governance,” said U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow for the District of Puerto Rico. “Our resolve to bring to justice those entrusted by the public to serve with integrity and who violate that trust remains steadfast. Equally steadfast is our resolve to prosecute those who seek to use their wealth and power to enrich themselves at the expense of honest government. I commend the dedication and hard work of the law enforcement personnel and prosecutors in this case, as well as those individuals willing to come forward and cooperate.”

Herrera Velutini, 50, a dual Venezuelan-Italian citizen residing in London, owned an international bank operating in San Juan. Díaz, 50, of Puerto Rico, was the CEO and president of the international bank owned by Herrera Velutini. The bank, which was not identified in the indictment, is Bancrédito International Bank & Trust. Rossini, 60, of Madrid, was a former FBI special agent who provided consulting services to Herrera Velutini. Blakeman, 53, of Puerto Rico, is a political consultant who worked on Vázquez Garced’s 2020 campaign.

According to the indictment, beginning in 2019, Herrera Velutini’s bank was the subject of an examination by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions (OCIF by its Spanish initials), a regulatory agency that oversees financial institutions operating on the island. Through intermediaries, Herrera Velutini and Rossini allegedly promised to provide funding to support Vázquez Garced’s 2020 gubernatorial election campaign in exchange for Vázquez Garced terminating the OCIF commissioner, George Richard Joyner, and appointing a new commissioner of Herrera Velutini’s choosing, who was Víctor Rodríguez Bonilla, who worked at Bancrédito.

According to the indictment, Herrera Velutini attended a wedding of an individual identified as Individual C and was seated at the same table as Vázquez Garced. When Blakeman sent a text message to Herrera Velutini seeking support, Herrera Velutini replied “She has it! At this table she already has 2MM,” then later wrote “But she has to resolve OCIF.”

The indictment alleges that Vázquez Garced accepted the offer of a bribe and, in February 2020, took official action to demand the resignation of “OCIF Commissioner A” and, in May 2020, to appoint “OCIF Commissioner B” – a former consultant for the international bank owned by Herrerac Velutini – who had been personally selected by Herrera Velutini. In return, Herrera Velutini and Rossini allegedly paid more than $300,000 to political consultants in support of Vázquez Garced’s campaign.

The indictment further alleges that following Vázquez Garced’s primary election loss in August

2020, Herrera Velutini sought to bribe her successor, identified as Public Official A, presumably current Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia, by offering funding in support of Public Official A’s campaign in exchange for Public Official A ending OCIF’s audit of Herrera Velutini’s bank on terms favorable to Herrera Velutini.

According to the indictment, between April 2021 and August 2021, Herrera Velutini allegedly used intermediaries to convey his offer of a bribe to a witness, presumably Joseph Fuentes Fernández, who held himself out as a representative of Public Official A, but who was in fact acting at the direction of the FBI. As noted in the indictment, the witness was acting at the direction of the FBI during this timeframe and not actually serving as an intermediary of, or acting on behalf of, Public Official A, the officials said.

In August 2021, Herrera Velutini allegedly directed a $25,000 payment to a political action committee associated with Public Official A, with the understanding and expectation that Public Official A would resolve OCIF’s audit of Herrera Velutini’s bank in the manner requested by Herrera Velutini.

If convicted on all counts, the accused each face a maximum total penalty of 20 years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Meanwhile, the department also announced the guilty pleas of two individuals in connection with the schemes to bribe Vázquez Garced and Public Official A. According to court documents, in March, Frances Díaz pleaded guilty to conspiring with Herrera Velutini and others to bribe Public Official A. Díaz was, until February 2022, the CEO and president of the international bank owned by Herrera Velutini. In March, John Blakeman also pleaded guilty to conspiring with Herrera Velutini and Rossini to bribe Vázquez Garced, and with Herrera Velutini to bribe Public Official A.

Both Díaz and Blakeman face up to five years in prison. Their sentencing hearings have not yet been scheduled.

Trial Attorneys Ryan R. Crosswell, Erica O. Waymack and Nicholas W. Cannon of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth A. Erbe of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico are prosecuting the case. Members of the Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section also provided assistance with the investigation, including trial attorneys Margaret Leigh Kessler and D. Zachary Adams, and Bank Integrity Unit Acting Chief Molly Moeser.

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