- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila and 12 associates, including his former administrative director in Washington, have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax crimes during three recent political campaigns.

A 27-count indictment handed up Monday in U.S. District Court in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and unsealed yesterday said the governor and his associates conspired to defraud the United States and violate Federal Election Campaign (FEC) laws by having Puerto Rican businessmen make illegal and unreported donations to pay off campaign debts.

The indictment, which makes Mr. Acevedo Vila the next in a string of Democrats to be hit by ethics-related charges, said the suspected conspiracy involved Mr. Acevedo Vila’s 2000 and 2002 campaigns for resident commissioner of Puerto Rico and his 2004 gubernatorial race.

Payments were made principally to the public relations and media company for the campaigns, according to the indictment, which said significant debts were concealed from the FEC and the public.

Also charged with conspiracy was Eneidy Coreano Salgado, 40, of Rockville, who served as Mr. Acevedo Vila”s administrative director in his Washington, D.C., resident commissioner office.

Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said Mr. Acevedo Vila, 48, and his legal adviser, Luisa Inclan Bird, 47, solicited, accepted and then reimbursed illegal conduit contributions from the governor’s family members and staff.

Conduit contributions are illegal campaign donations made by one person in the name of another.

Mr. Acevedo Vila announced last month he was backing Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid in advance of Puerto Rico’s Democratic nomination contest. Initial plans to close the nominating season with a June 3 caucus were recently switched, and instead Puerto Rico will hold a June 1 primary.

“Senator Obama respects and supports Puerto Ricans’ right to an unbiased, transparent self-determination process, which may include a constitutional convention or plebiscite should Puerto Ricans re-evaluate our status with the United States,” Mr. Vila said last month in announcing his endorsement as one of the superdelegates, who likely will decide the Democratic nomination.

Asked about the indictment, the Illinois Democrat’s campaign spokesman Reid Cherlin responded: “Though he is a supporter, he holds no title and has no formal role with the campaign.”

The indictment said a group of Philadelphia-area businessmen solicited, accepted and then reimbursed illegal conduit contributions from their own family members and staff for the governor, who then assisted the businessmen in obtaining contracts from Puerto Rican government agencies.

The indictment also outlined a scheme to defraud the Puerto Rico Treasury Department of $7 million by fraudulently pledging to abide by a voluntary public funding law in Mr. Acevedo Vila’s 2004 successful gubernatorial campaign. It said the funding law required a cap on spending and full reporting of all contributions and expenditures. In exchange, the Treasury Department provided up to $7 million of public funds to the candidate’s campaign.

But the indictment said Mr. Acevedo Vila and his associates conducted unreported fundraising and made unrecorded vendor payments for the 2004 campaign to raise and spend far more than the limited amount.

According to the indictment, Puerto Rican businessmen used money from their personal or corporate funds to finance large and unreported debts to the campaign’s public relations and media company. The cash also was used to keep contributions and vendor payments concealed from the Puerto Rican Treasury Department and the public, it said.

The indictment comes in the wake of a series of scandals that have rocked Democratic politicians across the country.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice; New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned after being accused of paying for sex with a call girl; and Mr. Spitzer’s replacement, newly sworn-in Gov. David A. Paterson, was forced to disclose that he had used cocaine and cheated on his wife.

The Democratic presidential race has been swamped in charges of corruption and unsavory association in recent weeks. Sen. Barack Obama has seen his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., become a national figure over videos of his fiery anti-American sermons, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has had to admit “misstatements” on running from sniper fire in Bosnia.

U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Velez said the indictment demonstrated the commitment of the Justice Department and her office “to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.

“Candidates for office and elected officials will be held accountable for corrupting the electoral process by disregarding campaign-financing laws,” she said. “Electoral fraud undermines the essence of our representative form of government, and operates to the detriment of every Puerto Rican.”

Others charged were Candido Negron Mella, 41, of Glenn Mills, Pa.; Salvatore Avanzato, 69, of Boothwyn, Pa.; Jorge Velasco Mella, 38, of San Juan, Puerto Rico; Robert M. Feldman, 60, of Gladwyne, Pa.; Marvin I. Block, 74, of Philadelphia; and Ramon Velasco Escardille, 49, of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Also, Edwin Colon Rodriguez, 35, of Arecibo, Puerto Rico; Miguel Nazario Franco, 60, of San Juan, Puerto Rico; Ricardo Colon Padilla, 39, of Ro Piedras, Puerto Rico; and Jose Gonzalez Freyre, 56, of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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