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Former Puerto Rico governor arrested on bribery charges

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The FBI has arrested the former governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vazquez. She's charged with having accepted bribes while in office. Her arrest is the latest in a string of recent high-profile corruption cases that have been chipping away at people's trust in Puerto Rico's government. NPR's Adrian Florido joins us with more. Hi, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So the FBI arrested Wanda Vazquez at her home in Puerto Rico early this morning. What exactly is she accused of doing?

FLORIDO: Well, the Justice Department has accused Vazquez of accepting a $300,000 bribe while she was governor - just a couple of years ago - to finance her 2020 gubernatorial campaign, a campaign she ultimately lost. The bribe is alleged to have come from the owner of an overseas bank that operates in Puerto Rico and that was facing scrutiny from regulators on the island. And the accusation is that in late 2019, that bank's owner, a man named Julio Herrera Velutini, asked the governor to remove the island's top banking regulator and to appoint someone else, someone he chose. And in exchange, he offered to finance her 2020 campaign with a $300,000 payment to her political consultants. And the governor, according to federal prosecutors, accepted that bribe and followed through with her promise.

SHAPIRO: Has that banker been charged?

FLORIDO: He was also charged today and so was a third man, a former FBI agent accused of having brokered the payments between the banker and the governor's consultants. All three of them, the former governor, the banker and that FBI agent, are facing 20 years in prison if convicted. Though prosecutors said that both that banker and the former FBI agent are overseas and may face extradition proceedings.

SHAPIRO: Has the former governor responded to the charges?

FLORIDO: Not today. But a couple of months ago, she did convene reporters at her lawyer's office and disclosed that she was being investigated and would likely be arrested on federal charges. And at the time, her lawyer said that the case would be a technical one. They said that they would fight it and win. But at a press conference in San Juan today, the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico, Stephen Muldrow, and his team said this is a solid case, and it's egregious because it involves the island's top public official, the governor, accepting a bribe to undermine her own government's efforts to regulate an important industry.

SHAPIRO: And as I mentioned, this is the latest in a string of high-profile corruption cases in Puerto Rico. What are all these arrests doing for public trust in government?

FLORIDO: You know, public trust in government in Puerto Rico has been in the gutter for years. Puerto Rico has been mired in an economic crisis for a decade and a half, and people blame their politicians. The government's response to Hurricane Maria in 2017 was dismal. More than half a dozen mayors have been arrested for bribery this year. And the reason that Wanda Vazquez became governor in 2019 was because her predecessor was forced to resign amid mass protests. Vazquez was the island's Justice secretary at the time, its top prosecutor, and it ended up being first in line of succession after that resignation. So she took office promising to lead with integrity and to regain public trust.

And so if these accusations are true, well, it turns out that she was just selling out her office for a bundle of cash to help her stay in power. Statistics show, Ari, that corruption is not more common in Puerto Rico than elsewhere in the U.S., but it is such a small, interconnected place, and there have been so many high-profile cases lately that I'm struck each time I speak with people in Puerto Rico by how little surprised they are that another politician has been arrested.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Adrian Florido. Thanks for your reporting.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.