Former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced arrested by the FBI, charged with bribery

Former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced arrested by the FBI, charged with bribery

Although it’s public knowledge that the former governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez Garced, and some of her cronies have been under investigation for corruption, Puerto Ricans woke up Thursday morning to the surprising news that she had been arrested by the FBI, along with two other unidentified people.

Ironically enough, prior to being appointed governor in August 2019, Vázquez served as the island’s Secretary of Justice. Vázquez is a member of the conservative New Progressive Party, which advocates for U.S. statehood, and is also a registered Republican.

English-language reporting, as of this writing, is sparse, with most U.S. outlets simply republishing Danica Coto’s story for the Associated Press.

Former Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez was arrested Thursday in the U.S. territory on corruption charges, marking the first time that a former leader of the island faces federal charges, an official told The Associated Press.

Two other unidentified people were arrested along with her, said the official, who was not authorized to talk about the federal case.

Juan Rosado-Reynés, a spokesman for Vázquez, told the AP he did not have immediate comment.

In mid-May, Vázquez’s attorney told reporters that he and his client were preparing for possible charges as the former governor at the time denied any wrongdoing: “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.”

Coto has since reported that Vázquez faces charges from an intricate “bribery scheme.”

Vázquez is accused of engaging in a bribery scheme from December 2019 through June 2020—while she was governor—with several people, including a Venezuelan-Italian bank owner, a former FBI agent, a bank president and a political consultant.

The consultant, identified as John Blakeman, and the bank president, identified as Frances Díaz, have pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In early 2019, the bank owned by Julio Martín Herrera Velutini was being scrutinized by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions because of transactions authorities believed were suspicious and had not been reported by the bank.

While Vázquez may be the first former governor of Puerto Rico to face federal charges, she’s not the first in her party—by far.

Puerto Rico woke up this morning to Pro-statehood party (PNP) ex-governor Wanda Vazquez being arrested for corruption by the FBI. This is the 8th member of this political party arrested by the FBI on corruption charges within the last 2 years. https://t.co/SPlncLNFwp

— devilette (@deviIette) August 4, 2022

Vázquez’s ascension to the island’s top leadership in August 2019 was a fraught one. 

Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez became Puerto Rico’s new governor Wednesday, just the second woman to hold the office, after weeks of political turmoil and hours after the island’s Supreme Court declared Pedro Pierluisi’s swearing-in a week ago unconstitutional.

[…]

“We have all felt the anxiety provoked by the instability and uncertainty,” Vázquez said, adding that she would meet with legislators and government officials in the coming days. “Faced with this enormous challenge and with God ahead, I take a step forward with no interest other than serving the people … It is necessary to give the island stability, certainty to the markets and secure (hurricane) reconstruction funds.”

The high court’s unanimous decision, which could not be appealed, settled the dispute over who will lead the U.S. territory after its political establishment was knocked off balance by big street protests spawned by anger over corruption, mismanagement of funds and a leaked obscenity-laced chat that forced the previous governor and several top aides to resign.

But it was also expected to unleash a new wave of demonstrations because many Puerto Ricans have said they don’t want Vázquez as governor.

Pierluisi—who succeeded Vázquez after the unelected incumbent lost her 2021 primary—was originally appointed after intense protests led then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to resign.

Tonight’s protest calling for the resignation of Puerto Rico Governor @ricardorossello is the biggest demonstration many people here say they’ve seen in many years. It stretches for blocks in several directions outside his residence. pic.twitter.com/daVARUdfy0

— Adrian Florido (@adrianflorido) July 15, 2019

As I noted at the time, the protests gained traction after a leaked group chat revealed Rosselló’s blatant misogyny and homophobia in the face of an already scandalized administration.

From CBS News:

Puerto Rico’s governor faces new calls to resign over leaked conversations that reveal his role in a profane, sexist and homophobic group chat. The island has struggled to recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017 and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration has been plagued by scandals involving funding. Two top officials stepped down this weekend after the leaked group chat.  It showed Rosselló and his allies discussing confidential government information and disparaging officials, politicians and journalists.

It’s worth noting that Rosselló, Vázquez, and Pierluisi are all members of the island’s conservative New Progressive Party. As POLITICO noted in 2020, the politics of the island are complex.

In Puerto Rico, statehood is the axis around which all politics revolve.

There are two main political parties — the New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party. Neither fits neatly into the Democratic-Republican binary, but the NPP is typically seen as the more conservative coalition, and has advocated tax cuts and conservative social policies—positions which align it more closely to the Republican Party, even as national Republicans generally oppose statehood. But perhaps the most important contrast between the two parties comes on the issue of statehood: The NPP supports it, while the PDP is pro-commonwealth. The NPP advocates closer ties with Washington, whereas the PDP advocates local control.

In recent years, the NPP’s platform has proved successful at the ballot box. The party has two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate, and controls both the governor’s mansion and the island’s nonvoting seat in the U.S. House.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, the high-profile mayor of San Juan who is a member of the opposition PDP, says it would be a mistake to conflate the NPP’s dominance with widespread support for conservatism — many of its members identify as Democrats, she notes. Even so, she’s not sure whether Puerto Ricans would identify more with the Republican or Democratic Party if statehood were achieved.

As Yulín Cruz told the outlet:  “What Puerto Ricans see, and this is wrong for us to see it this way, but what they see is that the pro-statehood party is equivalent to the Republican Party, and that the commonwealth party is equivalent to the Democratic Party.”

Though the parties on the island and the mainland may not be exact mirrors of each other, widespread corruption certainly is a GOP trait. 

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