SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila surrendered to federal authorities Friday and pleaded not guilty to corruption charges as hundreds of his followers rallied outside to booming salsa music.
Acevedo is charged with conspiracy to violate federal campaign laws and defraud the Internal Revenue Service, and giving false testimony to the FBI 19 counts in all with a total sentence of 20 years in prison if he's convicted.
His response has been to stoke Puerto Rican nationalism, describing the federal indictment as an attack against all islanders.
"I will put up a fight for Puerto Rico" he declared after being booked and emerged into a raucous crowd of some 300 supporters, exchanging hugs and high-fives.
But not all Puerto Ricans see Acevedo's problem as their own.
The governor should resign, said Luis Fortuno, the island's nonvoting congressional delegate and Acevedo's chief rival as he seeks re-election in November.
"He does not have the moral standing to govern the people and resolve this mess that he has gotten us into," Fortuno said.
Acevedo vowed "to remain firm as governor of all Puerto Ricans" at a press conference he later held at his residence in La Fortaleza, a powder-blue mansion where governors have ruled since the 17th century.
Acevedo then walked along Old San Juan's cobblestone streets to buy himself a coffee, projecting defiance and a business-as-usual attitude.
But away from the cameras, inside the FBI's offices, he appeared somber as he was fingerprinted and had his mug shot taken, FBI agent Brenda Diaz said.
"He's starting to grasp what's going on," Diaz said. "It doesn't hit you until you get here."
The governor later appeared composed and winked at reporters as he left the courtroom where Thomas Green, his Washington-based attorney, wasted no time in saying Acevedo "pleads not guilty to each and every count."
The indictment accuses Acevedo and a dozen associates of illegally raising money to pay off more than $500,000 in campaign debts from his two terms as Puerto Rico's nonvoting delegate to Congress from 2000-04.
Magistrate Margaret Kravchuck released Acevedo on his own recognizance but required him to check in with authorities once a month by telephone and notify them before he travels outside Puerto Rico. No trial date was set.
He accused the Justice Department of targeting him because he criticized an FBI raid in which a fugitive militant for Puerto Rican independence was killed, and because he opposes the death penalty, which can only be imposed in the island for federal crimes.
Acting U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez and the head of the FBI in San Juan have each denied any political motivation.
Acevedo is the first governor to face federal charges since the island became a semiautonomous U.S. commonwealth in 1952. In editorials, local newspapers called for Puerto Ricans to let the justice system proceed.
"The seriousness of the charges and the unprecedented fact that the main person accused is our maximum figure of executive authority calls for an enormous dose of prudence and equanimity from everyone," said El Nuevo Dia.