Feds charge Puerto Rico gov., 12 others
By MANUEL ERNESTO RIVERA
Associated Press Writer
Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila indignantly denied wrongdoing Thursday and gave no sign he would abandon his re-election effort after being charged with campaign finance violations that carry a penalty of 20 years in prison.
Acevedo, a superdelegate to this summer's Democratic convention, accused U.S. prosecutors of pursuing a politically motivated indictment alleging that the governor and a dozen other people conspired to illegally pay off his campaign debts.
"I am going to defend my rights and protect the dignity of my family and of the people of Puerto Rico who support me," the governor said in a statement hours after the FBI arrested most of those named in the indictment in San Juan, Philadelphia and Washington area.
Acevedo served in Washington as the island's nonvoting delegate to Congress then was elected governor in 2004 after campaigning on an anti-corruption platform.
"I want to assure the people of Puerto Rico that I have never solicited nor accepted a contribution in exchange for a government contract, never permitted the illegal use of public funds nor acted illegally," he said. "I know very well several of those accused today, and I am convinced that they never accepted a bribe or stole a single cent."
At a late-night meeting with members of his Popular Democratic Party, Acevedo agreed to do anything necessary - including resign - to keep the investigation from harming the organization, former party leader Miguel Hernandez Agosto said.
"That, to me, is a very serious, important and patriotic declaration," Hernandez said. "You cannot be more clear."
Hernandez and other party members declined to say whether they had asked the governor to resign. Acevedo left the closed-door meeting without answering reporters' questions.
Acevedo canceled all his public events and remained sequestered all day in the island's powder-blue colonial governor's residence with his wife and two children. He said he would turn himself in Friday.
In a brief address on Puerto Rican television Thursday evening, he repeated his denials and accused U.S. authorities of distracting him from trying to revive the island's struggling economy. "They want blood not your well being," he said of federal prosecutors. The governor did not take questions.
His indictment on 19 charges, including conspiracy to violate federal campaign laws, conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service and giving false testimony to the FBI, made him the latest U.S. governor to run into legal trouble.
Others include New York's Gov. Eliot Spitzer, forced to resign after he was accused of soliciting prostitutes, and Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, convicted for corruption in 2006 in what his allies allege was a politically motivated prosecution.
Acevedo's indictment could create some awkward moments for Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama if they campaign as expected on the island ahead of its June 1 Democratic primary.
The governor is one of the island's seven superdelegates and has endorsed Obama, but Amy Brundage, a spokesman for the Illinois senator, said Acevedo has no formal campaign role.
In recent months, Acevedo had accused the Justice Department of targeting him, in part for his criticism of a 2005 FBI raid in Puerto Rico during which a fugitive independence militant was killed.
Acting U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, who said authorities agreed to let Acevedo surrender "in deference to his position," dismissed his allegation that the charges are politically motivated.
"Nobody is above the law. We all lose when electoral processes are compromised," Rodriguez said. "For our part, we are not politicians, we do not make political decisions."
Luis Fraticelli, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Juan office, also rejected the claim of political bias. He said the agency opened the formal investigation three months before the shootout in which Filiberto Ojeda Rios was killed at a farmhouse in western Puerto Rico.
Acevedo, 46, a Harvard-educated attorney and career politician, served in Washington as the island's nonvoting delegate to Congress in 2000-04, then ran a successful campaign for governor.
The governor's Popular Democratic Party supports maintaining Puerto Rico's semiautonomous relationship to the United States. His chief rival in November's gubernatorial election, who wants the island to become the 51st state, called on Acevedo to resign.
The governor "does not have the moral standing to govern the people and resolve this mess that he has gotten us into," said Luis Fortuno, who is also the island's nonvoting congressional delegate.
Acevedo's claims of political persecution resonate on the island, where many people feel a deep sense of nationalism and a resentment toward the U.S. But in interviews across the capital, most Puerto Ricans appeared to focus their anger on the governor.
"He should pay for what he did," said Carmen Martinez Burgos, a 77-year-old retiree walking near San Juan's federal building.
Jorge Menendez, a 62-year-old businessman from the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo, said the indictments should serve as warning to all public officials. "No one is above the law," he said.
Fraticelli said the FBI began the investigation after receiving detailed allegations from an undisclosed source about potentially illegal contributions to Acevedo's campaign to be the island's nonvoting delegate to Congress.
The information suggested that Acevedo received an unusually large number of campaign contributions from dental clinic employees and other people in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey areas and that some may have contributed money through others to avoid campaign donation limits, Fraticelli said.
In June 2005, the FBI opened a public corruption investigation and agents "slowly began to uncover an elaborate illegal campaign contribution scheme," he said.
Authorities eventually determined that after wracking up a $545,000 campaign debt during the 2000 campaign, Acevedo allegedly sought and received illegal contributions to cover the shortfall and bankroll later campaigns, according to the indictment.
Acevedo is also accused of filing false tax returns to conceal cash payments that he received. Authorities say he also used campaign money for personal expenses, including clothing purchases and family trips to Florida, Costa Rica and China.
The 55-page indictment also charges Acevedo personally helped a group of Philadelphia-area businessmen in their efforts to obtain Puerto Rican government contracts after they delivered illegal campaign contributions from their own staff and family members.
Four defendants from Pennsylvania have been accused of conspiracy, including Candido Negron Mella of Glenn Mills, who served as the governor's U.S. deputy campaign finance chairman. His lawyer declined comment.