SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Puerto Rican Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila and 12 political associates in the Caribbean island and on the U.S. mainland were charged with election funding fraud in an indictment unsealed on Thursday.
The charges said Acevedo Vila collected illegal contributions and spent far more than he reported during his election campaigns from 1999 to 2004.
A group of Philadelphia-area businessmen solicited contributions from relatives and staff and illegally reimbursed the donors, the indictment alleges. The governor then helped them get government contracts in Puerto Rico, it says.
Before taking office as governor in January 2005, Acevedo Vila was the U.S. territory’s resident commissioner, its non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress.
Charges in the 27-count indictment include conspiracy, making false statements to the FBI, wire fraud, defrauding a federal election funding program and tax crimes.
Acevedo Vila, who faces 19 counts, issued a statement saying he would turn himself in on Friday and called the charges politically motivated.
“It’s the result of three years of leaks, rumors and a spectacle designed to harm me,” said Acevedo Vila, who faces re-election in November.
“Because the federal authorities have decided to stretch their jurisdiction and twist the truth, I am going to defend my rights and protect the dignity of my family and the people of Puerto Rico who support me.”
He is a member of the Popular Democratic Party, which favors maintaining Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth rather than seeking full U.S. statehood.
Acevedo Vila is the third well-known Democrat to get into trouble with the law this month. Elliot Spitzer resigned as New York governor amid reports that he hired a $1,000-an-hour prostitute. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was charged with perjury and other offenses stemming in part from a sex scandal.
Acevedo Vila, who endorsed Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as the Democratic contender in the U.S. presidential race, is also a superdelegate, one of the party insiders and elected officials who may hold the deciding votes in the contest between Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Puerto Rico’s 4 million residents cannot vote in the November election but they help choose party nominees and will hold a presidential primary election on June 1. Puerto Rico will send 55 elected delegates and eight superdelegates to the Democrats’ nominating convention in August.
Acevedo Vila was secluded inside La Fortaleza, the historic governor’s mansion in Old San Juan, as prosecutors held a news conference on Thursday to announce the charges.
Investigators said Acevedo Vila routinely supplemented his income with campaign funds, in amounts ranging from $500 to $5,000. They said he also used campaign cash to pay for family vacations in Orlando, Florida, and to send his children on a trip to China.
The other 12 defendants were arrested and included campaign donors and staff and some of Acevedo Vila’s current and former aides in Washington and San Juan.
They are accused of making and collecting illegal contributions, mostly funneled through the campaign’s public relations and media company.
If convicted, the defendants face from three to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $6.4 million. The governor himself faces up to 20 years if convicted on all counts.
Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami, editing by Michael Christie and Mohammad Zargham