U.S. Issues Indictment of Governor in Puerto Rico
By KIRK SEMPLE
Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of Puerto Rico, charged in a federal indictment unsealed on Thursday with campaign finance violations, denied any wrongdoing and vowed to remain in office and fight the charges.
Among the 19 criminal counts he faces are tax fraud and using campaign money to pay for family vacations in Miami; Orlando, Fla.; and China; to pay for $57,000 worth of “high end” clothing; and to pay personal credit card bills.
The indictment threw Puerto Rican politics into disarray as some politicians and political commentators called for Mr. Acevedo’s resignation and members of the opposition party, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, began to discuss impeachment.
Mr. Acevedo said the indictment, which charges him with crimes related to financing three campaigns from 1999 to 2004, was “politically motivated” and “totally false.”
“I want you to be sure that I will continue working hard with my cabinet to move the country forward and face the economic challenges,” the governor, a Democrat running for re-election on the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party ticket, said in a televised statement. “I will never allow a politically motivated prosecution to distract me from serving you.”
The indictment produced something of a collective exhalation as the island could pass from gossip to the realities of a federal prosecution.
The indictment, from a grand jury investigation that lasted more than two years, also charged 12 associates of Mr. Acevedo on the island and in the United States mainland with participation in illegal fund-raising.
Mr. Acevedo, 48, said he would surrender to the authorities on Friday. He faces up to 20 years if convicted on all counts, the authorities said.
Most of the other defendants were arrested, and federal officials said they were seeking the remaining few.
José F. Aponte Hernández, the speaker of the commonwealth’s House and a member of the New Progressive Party, said the party would decide on Friday whether to proceed with impeachment.
“This is a bad situation for Puerto Rico, not only for the governor, but for the people of Puerto Rico,” Mr. Aponte said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Aponte said that although he and the governor were from different parties “this is not the best situation for Puerto Rico.”
“I can not be happy about it,” he added.
The prosecution may affect the presidential race. Mr. Acevedo is a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention and a supporter of Senator Barack Obama.
The 27-count indictment accuses the defendants of conspiring to raise money illegally to pay off large debts stemming from Mr. Acevedo’s successful campaigns in 2000 and 2002 to be the commonwealth’s nonvoting member of Congress, a position he held from 2001 to 2005, when he became governor. The reported campaign debt in 2000 was $545,000, the indictment says.
In the scheme, the indictment adds, Mr. Acevedo, with the help of other defendants, solicited and then reimbursed illegal campaign contributions from members of Mr. Acevedo’s family and staff and from the family members and staff of a group of businessmen in and around Philadelphia.
To circumvent contribution limits, the governor and his associates disguised the sources of the contributions by listing them under other people’s names, the indictment states.
In return for the contributions, the indictment says, Mr. Acevedo helped the businessmen obtain contracts from Puerto Rican government agencies for them and their clients.
In the governor’s 2004 campaign, the indictment says, Puerto Rican businessmen made large and unreported donations to the campaign, as much as $50,000 each, by disguising them as corporate payments to a public relations and media company that the campaign had contracted. In fact, those payments were covering campaign expenses.
The indictment accuses Mr. Acevedo of using campaign money for personal use and illegally failing to report it on income tax returns. The investigation had been a lively topic among politicians, political analysts and the news media in Puerto Rico. In the absence of many hard facts, rumor became operative, until the announcement of the indictment.
“It is the talk everywhere, and in general, what you hear is people saying what an embarrassment this is for Puerto Rico,” said Michelle Fabelo, a finance manager in San Juan.
“This is a zoo, you can imagine,” added Luis Dávila Colón, a political analyst in San Juan.
Reaction on the island appeared to hew to the sharp divisions that define commonwealth politics. Mr. Acevedo’s supporters backed his contention that the case was politically motivated. His opponents said the indictment seemed to underscore their long-held contentions that the governor was corrupt.
In a statement circulated by the governor’s office, Thomas C. Green, a lawyer in Washington who represents Mr. Acevedo, called the charges senseless and questioned why the indictment was unsealed “only months” before the election.
“This is an unprecedented and underserved intrusion by the federal government into the affairs and electoral process in the commonwealth,” Mr. Green said in a statement.